Turbulence is a fact of flying. When planes experience sudden, rapid changes in airflow, things can get a little bumpy. In most cases, it’s just a minor discomfort, but severe cases can send passengers and crew to the hospital.
That was the case with Allegiant Flight 227 out of Asheville earlier this year. Passengers reported the ride was peaceful until the final 20 minutes. As the plane was descending into St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, the flight hit severe turbulence sending two passengers and two flight attendants to the hospital.
Fortunately, incidents, such as this are rare. Unfortunately, they’re not as rare as they used to be.
Research from the University of Reading in the UK used decades of data to model the atmosphere from 1979 to 2020. Results showed the strongest category of clear air turbulence, which is a type of turbulence that occurs outside of storms and major weather systems, increased 55%, particularly around the North American jet stream.
Dr. Chip Konrad, the director of NOAA’s Southeast Regional Climate Center, said the research methods are sound, but he’d like to see more data to support the underlying hypothesis, which is the increase appears to be consistent with the impact of climate change.
“There’s a lot of complexity there so that makes it very challenging to hang your hat on climate change,” he said. “I think it’s in there, but it takes a lot to detangle it.”
Konrad believes it’s plausible atmospheric warming could be strengthening wind shear and there have been documented changes in the jet stream over the past several decades. He calls it “getting loopier” but the jet stream has been slowing down, changing patterns, contorting into extreme positions, often coinciding with severe weather outbreaks.
“There’s more and more evidence that climate change may be associated with those changes,” he said.
In most cases, turbulence is easy to predict and avoidable by analyzing weather patterns, but staying away from air turbulence remains a challenge.
“It happens sometimes over very small areas over really short time periods, that aspect of it can be very difficult if impossible to forecast,” he said. “It’s a place where you wouldn’t expect it and the winds themselves are invisible so you can’t see them.”
Pilots still rely on each other’s reports to detect clear air turbulence and don’t always get enough notice to fly around it.
The good news for passengers is that as long as your seatbelt is on and everything around you is secure, the risk of a major injury from turbulence is rare and no matter how scary the bumpy ride can get. Chances of turbulence leading to a crash are next to zero.
Out of millions of commercial flights since 2009, the FAA reports there have been 163 turbulence-related injuries. Crew members, especially flight attendants who are more likely to be walking through the cabin, account for 80 percent of those injuries.
VIDEO: Injuries reported after severe turbulence on flight from Asheville