Why turbulence is on the rise – and the regions where it’s worst for bumpy flights

Incidents of extreme turbulence appear to be increasing. The latest, on an Air Europa plane flying from Spain to Uruguay on July 2, injured more than 30 passengers and forced an emergency landing in Brazil.

It is one of many high-profile incidents in recent years. In May, a British grandfather died and 30 people were injured after a flight from London to Singapore hit severe turbulence and was forced to divert to Bangkok. Just four days later, 12 people were injured on a flight from Doha to Dublin.

Meanwhile, in March 2023, actor Matthew McConaughey said he had a “real scare” when his Lufthansa flight from Austin to Frankfurt hit severe turbulence, leaving seven passengers hospitalized. A widely circulated TikTok video showed trays, food and bedding strewn across the cabin in the aftermath.

Damage to the Air Europa aircraft involved in the July 2 incident

Damage to the Air Europa plane involved in the July 2 incident – Reuters

While these incidents are extreme and injuries from turbulence are rare, bumpy rides are on the rise, according to a 2023 study from the University of Reading published in the journal Geophysical research lettersAnalysis of data from the North Atlantic and the US found that severe incidents of clean air turbulence (sudden turbulence without clouds or storms) increased by 55 per cent between 1979 and 2020. Future projections from a team at the university led by Professor Paul Williams suggest they could double or even triple further in the coming decades due to increasing wind instabilities and pockets of rough air caused, they say, by climate change.

That’s a problem because turbulence in clear air can’t be detected by radar and incidents often happen “out of the blue,” says meteorologist Jim Dale. “And turbulence at higher altitudes can occur over large areas and is difficult to avoid and/or negotiate.”

But while turbulence may be increasing, technologies are improving too. An algorithm Williams created to predict the strength of turbulence up to 18 hours in advance is now used by the US National Weather Service in its forecasts, and he’s also working with Airbus to make its planes more resilient in the future.

“They’ve been in touch with a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer,” he says. “Because of the long lead time in the life cycle of aircraft designs, the aircraft that will fly in the second half of this century are currently in the design phase. We need to make sure that the capability to withstand much more turbulence is built into the design standards.”

Meanwhile, Austrian company Turbulence Solutions hopes its turbulence suppression technology, which makes the phenomenon measurable and controllable using sensors, software and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), will make flights safer and more comfortable. In an interview with Interesting Engineering , CEO Andras Galffy revealed that he hopes to make the system available to commercial airlines by 2030.

In which regions is the turbulence most severe?

For now, some flights are definitely bumpier than others. Transatlantic routes are known for their light to moderate turbulence, thanks to unpredictable weather over the ocean caused by the strong jet stream. And according to data from the website Turbli, which analyzed 150,000 routes, five of the 10 most turbulent of 2023 were domestic flights in China. Meanwhile, five of Europe’s bumpiest short-haul routes landed in Zurich, possibly because they crossed mountain ranges.

“The global turbulence distribution is fairly consistent from year to year,” explains the site’s creator, Ignacio Gallego-Marcos. “This is because turbulence is generated by global circulation patterns such as jet streams, which have little interannual variability. During a given year, jet streams vary in location and strength, with winter being the most prone to turbulence due to the greater temperature difference between the poles and the equator (the main driving force of the jet stream).

“But even if interannual variability is small, there can be noticeable changes from year to year due to the chaotic nature of the weather or oscillations (recurring climate patterns). For example, in 2023, El Niño shifted the jet stream south on the U.S. East Coast, leading to stronger turbulence in the New York area (compared to the Boston area in 2022).”

Is there a way to avoid turbulence?

One solution is to choose a plane that handles bumps better. Gallego-Marcos recommends the Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A340 for less choppy flights. “You have to consider the weight divided by the wing area – that’s called the ‘wing loading,’ and it’s the most important factor,” he says. “The higher the ratio, the smoother the flight.

“Although large aircraft like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 weigh a lot, they actually have large wings, which means turbulence can shake them more easily than the 787 and the A340. The A340 actually has the highest wind load of all of them, but the 787 has more advanced systems to deal with turbulence.”

Whatever plane you end up in, choose a seat where the effects of bumps are less dramatic. Traveling in the middle of the plane (near the wings and center of gravity) will give you a less bumpy ride, while a seat toward the back will be the rockiest.

“I avoided working in the back of the plane because it’s the worst,” says Jane Hawkes, who worked as a flight attendant before becoming a consumer champion. “If you’re someone who’s worried about turbulence, talk to the crew when you get on the plane and ask if they can move you somewhere further forward.”

According to experts, the 737 rides are slightly less bumpyAccording to experts, the 737 rides are slightly less bumpy

According to experts, the 737 rides are slightly less bumpy – John D. Parker

What should I do in case of turbulence?

There’s a reason flight attendants tell passengers to keep their seatbelts on. “Sitting with your seatbelt on is the single most effective way to prevent injuries from turbulence,” according to The National Center for Atmospheric Research.

In the same vein, the American union AFA (Association of Flight Attendants) reiterated its call to ban the transport of babies on the lap from 2023. According to the union, this is particularly dangerous in severe turbulence and small children are better off in a child seat with good safety features.

Can I claim compensation for turbulence?

You certainly won’t get any money because your flight goes through a bumpy patch. However, if you are injured and the airline can be proven to have been negligent, you may be able to make a personal accident claim.

“If you don’t have enough warning to sit down and buckle up, you may be eligible to claim for general and/or special damages under the Montreal Convention if you are injured as a result,” Hawkes says. “In addition to delays, damage or loss of baggage, the Montreal Convention also establishes the airline’s liability in the event of death or injury to passengers.”

Do I have to worry?

Try not to be. The National Center for Atmospheric Research says that about 5,500 incidents of severe turbulence are reported by U.S. pilots each year. That number is lower than the number of flights that U.S. airlines operate each day: 5,670, according to figures from the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority). However, the same data suggests that there are about 65,000 incidents of moderate turbulence.

Hawkes emphasizes the training that pilots receive to deal with any eventuality. “These are incredibly well-trained professionals. Every six months they have to go into a flight simulator. They have scenarios with turbulence and how to deal with that. Even doctors don’t get tested that often.”

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