Recent reports of critical, turbulence-related injuries are enough to whip travelers into a panic. First, a United flight out of Newark headed for Beijing was forced to return to the airport after severe turbulence injured five flight attendents. Then, just this week, a separate United flight from Denver to Billings experienced turbulence so violent that one woman cracked the ceiling above her with her head (four others were injured). And then there’s this charming video released yesterday, of a descending plane being “banged to its limits.”
Sure, it’s terrifying stuff—but don’t cancel your next flight just yet. We spoke to a number of pilots and aviation experts to get the facts about turbulence-related injuries and what’s really happening when your plane is tossing violently (spoiler alert: itdoesn’t mean the plane’s about to crash).
1. TURBULENCE-RELATED INJURIES DO HAPPEN—BUT RARELY. The Federal Aviation Administration says there are between 30 and 60 cases of turbulence-related injuries each year. Two-thirds of that number are flight attendants (mostly because they’re the ones who might not be seatbelted in when the bumps hit), which means that only 20 passengers—out of the 800 million who fly each year in the United States—are injured due to turbulence.
2. GENERALLY, TURBULENCE IS QUITE HARMLESS. Turbulence is essentially just a “rough patch” caused by wind, due to thunderstorms, the jet stream, promiximity to mountains, and other factors, and thus is quite common on any flight.
3. PILOTS KNOW WHEN IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. In many cases, pilots know of turbulent conditions ahead and can turn on the seatbelt sign as the plane approaches it. Pilots are also aided by pre-flight weather reports, cockpit radar, and reports from other planes in the area.
4. CLEAR AIR TURBULENCE, HOWEVER, IS A DIFFERENT STORY. Clear air turbulence is the most dangerous kind, as it occurs in cloudless skies with perfect visibility—so oncoming turbulence cannot be picked up by weather radar. This gives leaves little to no time for the flight crew to warn passengers to return to their seats and buckle up. Unsurprisingly, most turbulence-related injuries are due to clear air turbulence.
5. CLEAR AIR TURBULENCE IS ON THE RISE. According to scientists, the amount of extreme clear air turbulence affecting flights could more than double by the middle of the century due to global warming. So brace yourself for more bumpy flights.
6. TURBULENCE WON’T CAUSE YOUR PLANE TO CRASH. Though it might feel like it, no matter how severe the turbulence is, the actual safety of the aircraft is rarely in question. “Planes are engineered to take a remarkable amount of punishment,” points out Patrick Smith, the writer behind Ask the Pilot and author of the recent book Cockpit Confidential.
7. PILOTS ARE TRAINED TO DEAL WITH IT—RELAX. To prevent turbulence, pilots carefully study the weather patterns, plan ahead, and choose the best route before every flight. When turbulence is unavoidable, the good ones, like Sully Sullenberger, know how toplacate anxious passengers.
8. THE SEATBELT SIGN IS WORTH OBEYING. REALLY. Due to the rise of clear air turbulence, the only sure-fire way of preventing turbulence-related injuries is to keep your seatbelt fastened whenever the sign is illuminated. Simple but effective.
9. CAR SEATS WORK FOR AIRPLANES, TOO. Lap children are the most vulnerable to turbulence-related injuries: violent motion could make the kid fly out of your arms. In fact, an infant girl on the latest United flight was dislodged from her parent’s lap by the violent shaking of the aircraft—and landed on another passenger several rows away (the baby was surprisingly unharmed). The National Transportation Safety Board has long called for requirements that infants be strapped into an airline-approved car seat.
10. WE MIGHT SOON BE ABLE TO AVOID TURBULENCE ALTOGETHER. Airlines are currently testing new technology which can help airplanes avoid turbulence altogether, by using ultraviolet lasers to send pulses into the air ahead.