Is turbulence dangerous?

Passengers on two recent flights injured after being thrown out of seats

Emirates plane
(Image credit: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Passengers on two separate flights were injured during bouts of turbulence last week, with some thrown out of their seats.

An Emirates flight from Auckland to Dubai on 10 July was hit with “severe turbulence” three hours before landing, leaving some passengers injured and the aircraft littered with debris.

Footage uploaded to Twitter shows food and beverage trolleys knocked over and a fallen exit sign.

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A spokesperson from Emirates confirmed that some crew members and passengers on the Airbus A380 suffered minor injuries, reports Stuff.

“First aid was administered and medical assistance was arranged for those who needed it on arrival,” they said.

One woman, who had been waiting by the toilets, said: “The plane dropped suddenly and I ended up airborne, smashing my head into the ceiling of the plane and then landing face-first on the ground. I hit with such impact that I was worried about losing my teeth. Luckily that did not occur.

“I must have been in shock as I didn't realise I was in a pool of blood, until a man crawled up to me to see if I was OK.”

The next day, nearly 40 Air Canada passengers traveling from Vancouver to Sydney on a Boeing 777-200 were injured after “un-forecasted and sudden” turbulence “suddenly dropped [the plane] and threw people out of their seats”, reports the Daily Mail. Most of the injuries were concussion or head or neck injuries. Oxygen masks were deployed, and the plane was forced to divert and make an emergency landing in Hawaii.

What is turbulence?

Smooth air that turns choppy – similar to waves in the sea – can make a plane rise, fall, and sway.

Physicists describe this as “turbulent flow”, which occurs when the air moves in an irregular mixing pattern, causing changes in pressure and direction.

These counter-currents fall into three categories: thermal, when warm air rises through cooler air; mechanical, where a mountain or manmade structure inhibits air flow; and shear, which occurs between two pockets of oppositely moving air, explains Travel + Leisure magazine.

Weather reports help pilots predict when and where turbulence is going to occur. Turbulence, which can reach heights of 50,000ft, is often spotted on radar, and then the plane is brought down to “turbulence penetration speed”, which can prevent damage to the aircraft's structure.

Is it dangerous?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that 17 passengers and crew members were seriously injured due to turbulence in 2017. The annual total of turbulence injuries varies: 2009’s total was 101, while 2013 saw just six.

“Turbulence is the leading cause of non-fatal aviation accidents each year,” says the FAA, but that’s mainly due to people not wearing seatbelts.

But turbulence is normal, and flying is actually one of the safest forms of travelling, as Travel + Leisure reports. It happens on almost every flight – although it is not usually as severe as that experienced by the recent Emirates and Air Canada flights.

“A plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket”, pilot Patrick Smith writes on his website, “Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash.”

Modern aircraft are tested with extreme conditions, including a load test on the wings that “bent the wing up almost 90 degrees,” says BBC Future.

Is turbulence becoming more common?

Maybe. Some scientists believe that turbulence will become more common as global warming continues.

“Turbulence will be stronger and occur more often if carbon dioxide emissions double by 2050 as the International Energy Agency forecasts”, reports Today.

A 2013 report in the Nature Climate Change journal claims that climate change could increase turbulence strength by 10% to 40%, and the chances of encountering it could rise by between 40% and 170%.

Is there a way to avoid turbulence?

New software and laser-based technology may be the solution, according to

Some American Airlines planes and United Airlines 787 Dreamliners are already fitted with rough-air predicting sensors, which could theoretically allow pilots to veer away from the waves.

Pockets of turbulent air, though, can be difficult to predict, Live Science notes. “Pilots often rely on turbulence reports from other pilots who have recently flown a certain flight path.”

Revised routing or increasing or decreasing altitude can also be simple solutions. And the best way to avoid potential injury is to keep your seatbelt on at all times, as advised by crew.

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