Many of us have experienced turbulence while traveling, which happens when your plane passes through conflicting bodies of air that move at very different speeds, with updrafts and downdrafts.
Severe turbulence can put even the most experienced rider on edge and make five minutes feel like an eternity. It usually results in nothing more than a rough ride, but in the worst cases it can cause damage and injury.
In non-fatal accidents, turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to flight attendants and passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and is one of the most common types of air accidents today, according to the National Transportation Safety Council for USA (NTSB).
Turbulence costs US airlines – due to injuries, delays and damage – up to $500 million a year, as data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows.
“There is a scale to measure how strong the turbulence is,” says Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the UK. “There is slight turbulence, which is a little bit of seat belt tension, but food service can continue and you can probably walk around the cabin, maybe with some difficulty.”
“There’s also moderate turbulence, stronger tension against seat belts, anything that isn’t strapped in will be dislodged and walking is difficult; flight attendants are generally instructed to remain in their seats.”
The worst kind is severe turbulence: it’s stronger than gravity, so it can strap you to your seat, and if you’re not wearing your seat belt, you’ll be flung across the cabin. This is the kind of turmoil that causes serious injury – it’s known to break bones, for example.
says Paul Williams
Lightning turbulence and no visual clues
About 65,000 aircraft experience moderate turbulence every year in the US, and about 5,500 experience severe turbulence. Those numbers, however, may be destined to grow.
Williams believes that climate change is modifying the turmoil and began studying the subject in 2013. “We did some computer simulations and found that severe turbulence could double or triple in the next few decades,” he says.
The findings, which were later confirmed by scientific observations, highlight a type of turbulence called “clean air turbulence,” which is not linked to any visual cues such as thunderstorms or clouds. Unlike regular turbulence, this type comes on suddenly and is hard to avoid.
According to the NTSB, between 2009 and 2018, flight crew had no advance warning in about 28% of turbulence-related accidents.
Williams’ analysis predicts that clean air turbulence will increase significantly worldwide in the 2050-2080 period, particularly along the busiest flight paths, and the strongest type of turbulence will increase the most.
This does not mean, however, that flying will be any less safe. “Airplanes are not going to start falling out of the sky, because aircraft are built to very high specifications and can withstand the worst turbulence they can expect to encounter, even in the future,” says Williams.
However, the average duration of turbulence will increase. “Typically, on a transatlantic flight, you can expect 10 minutes of turbulence. I think in a few decades that could increase to 20 minutes or half an hour. The seat belt sign will be triggered much more, much to the misfortune of passengers.”
fasten your seat belts
Keeping your seat belt fastened while seated is the best way to minimize the risk of injury from turbulence.
Flight attendants, however, are more exposed to this risk than passengers and suffer approximately 80% of all turbulence-related injuries.
“We’re the most likely to get hurt because we’re working, pushing 300-pound carts, even when there’s some kind of warning,” says Sara Nelson, a United flight attendant with 26 years of experience and president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Onboard, a union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines.
“We have flight attendants who were thrown against the ceiling and then back down several times, resulting in broken limbs. In the hallway, with unannounced turmoil, we had people who lost their toes, or lost the ability to work, or suffered injuries that kept them out of work for years,” he adds.
The aviation industry is taking the problem very seriously, says Nelson, but the transition to sustainable fuel should accelerate the fight against the climate crisis, and some regulations need to change. For example, the possibility for children under the age of two to fly on their parents’ laps.
“This is totally dangerous and our union is asking for a seat for every person on board,” says Nelson. “Not only can a child be thrown around the cabin, but when he descends he can injure someone else as well. When a child is born, you cannot leave the hospital unless you have a car seat properly installed. The same standards must apply to flight.”
Call for new stricter rules
The NTSB held a public meeting on turbulence last year and offered the same recommendation, along with stricter rules on fastening seat belts for passengers and flight attendants when the aircraft is flying in the vicinity of storms and below 6,000 kilometers. , as most injuries occur under these conditions.
It also recommended streamlining systems for collecting and sharing turmoil reports – this information is not circulating widely or quickly enough at the moment.
While the effects of climate change on turbulence will take many years to become obvious, Nelson believes some aggravation has already occurred.
“Of course this is anecdotal, but from Hurricane Katrina onwards there seems to have been an increase in turbulence activity, especially turbulence that comes without warning,” she says.
His worst experience of turmoil occurred during a flight to Dallas, North Texas, which ended up being diverted. “When something happens on the plane, passengers look at us to see if we look worried,” he adds.
“I was flying with a good friend of mine and we were stuck in our seats, facing the back of the aircraft – so there was a toilet in front of us instead of passengers.
“Thank God because we were clinging to each other and we were being thrown into our seats so violently it felt like our brains were being scrambled. This lasted a long time, but luckily we arrived safely on the ground”, says the flight attendant.
“Normally I’m not afraid of turmoil, because it’s something we learn in training and we know what to do to protect ourselves. But it is possible to have such bad turmoil and go on for so long that even though I knew it, my friend and I were praying — and I have to say I was scared for my life.”
Source: CNN Brasil