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Over the past week, significant disruptions have resulted in one death and one hospitalization on a commercial flight and seven hospitalizations on a commercial flight. Turbulence is usually just the cause of a rough ride, but it varies widely in severity and can cause damage to the plane and injuries to passengers and passengers on board — not to mention serious fear and anxiety among flyers.
Here’s what you need to know about how to keep yourself safe, and why it can get confusing.
How often does turbulence cause serious injuries?
Indeed, the injuries are disturbing. During flight, only about 3% of the atmosphere has mild turbulence, about 1% has moderate turbulence and a few tenths of a percent at any time have severe turbulence, says Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading who researches turbulence.
“You’re safe,” said Williams.
From 2009 to 2021, there were 30 passengers and 116 crew members seriously injured due to turbulence out of the million people who fly each year, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
The FAA defines serious injuries as those that require hospitalization for more than 48 hours, or include broken bones, severe muscle or tendon damage, damage to internal organs, or second- or third-degree burns. Airlines are not required to report more minor injuries, the number of injuries has been lifted.
Most of the passengers seriously injured in the crash were not wearing their seatbelts, often because they were using the restroom or walking or getting off, according to a 2021 report by the National Transportation Safety Board. Injuries can range from objects falling from the head of the barn and hitting people in the head, people being thrown into blocks or seats or the sides of the room or carts ramming into people.
The NTSB report found this to be true in crew members who were most injured while preparing the cabin for disembarkation or for cabin service — such as serving food or drink or collecting trash.
The NTSB has not said whether a passenger who was wearing a seat belt on a business flight from New Hampshire to Virginia on Friday died. The agency is still investigating what happened, but told the AP that disturbance-related deaths remain extremely rare.
What is the turbulent reality?
Turbulence is irregular air movement that causes erratic changes in the height or angle of the plane, which feels rough, dizzy, or tossing to people on board.
Atmospheric pressure, air around mountains and storm fronts or thunderstorms can all cause turbulence, according to the FAA. Jet streams — tight bands of strong winds in the upper atmosphere — are also a common cause of turbulence.
One of the most dangerous types of traffic is what is known as a clear air cloud, which warns of nothing visible, and often happens when pilots do not have the seatbelt on.
“It’s completely invisible to the naked eye, to radar, to satellites,” says Williams, a weather researcher. “The only information we have about him, really, is when he goes over the plane.”
Climate change causes more instability in the force of rivers and faster wind speeds, which will make it more turbulent when the sky appears clear. By 2050, pilots around the world can expect to encounter at least twice as much air pollution, Williams found in his research.
It is clear that the air is cloudy because a Lufthansa flight en route from Texas to Germany unexpectedly fell 1,000 feet this past week. There was a sudden commotion during the dinner service as the crew and passengers moved around the cabin. A plane overturned at Washington Dulles International Airport and seven people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries.
No matter what type of flight you experience, experts say the best thing passengers can do to avoid injury is to keep their seatbelts on, follow load-on restrictions and listen to instructions from pilots and flight attendants.
Turbulence also means damage to aircraft
In all, about 65,000 flights encounter moderate turbulence each year, and about 5,500 encounter severe turbulence, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
It’s almost unheard of to cause an emergency crash, but it can lead to expensive repairs for carriers. Usually there is damage to the cabin components such as seats and head bins when the luggage falls out or hits people. Turbulence-related damage, delays and injuries cost airlines up to $500 million per year.
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