Why you should take air turbulence seriously

United Airlines flight 1031 was about 80 miles east of Cancún, on its way from Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, when it encountered turbulence earlier this summer — severe turbulence.

The turbulence was so bad that multiple passengers crashed into the ceiling of the plane during the 20-minute ordeal, injuring 14, plus a crew member. Nine of the 14 injured passengers needed hospitalization, though.

Earlier this year, Aeroflot flight 270, flying from Moscow to Bangkok, hit severe “clear air turbulence” (CAT) over Myanmar. Passengers were thrown around the cabin. Even the oxygen masks dropped down as their compartments were badly shaken. Twenty-seven on the flight were hospitalized. Some required surgery. One person apparently sustained two broken arms.

The FAA reports that in 2015, 21 passengers and crew members on U.S. flights were badly injured as a result of in-flight turbulence. In 2016, that number rose to 44. Those on the FAA’s turbulence injury list have injuries that required at least 48 hours of hospitalization and included fractures; hemorrhages; nerve, muscle, or tendon damage; organ injuries; second or third-degree burns or other major injuries.

Most travelers who fly only a few times per year endure some stretches of turbulence on flights, during which the plane’s captain turns on the seatbelt sign, but few experience severe turbulence.

Turbulence results from winds, the jet stream, a plane’s proximity to convective weather patterns, or mountainous terrain and other factors. CAT is the turbulent movement of air masses in the absence of any visual clues. Some people refer to CAT as “air pockets.” It can occur without any warning whatsoever, and it can happen on any flight.

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Using new advanced technology designed to locate and predict turbulence, including CAT, the airlines are attempting avoid turbulence or at least give passengers advance warning.

Currently, planning for and spotting turbulence is an inexact science. Pilots create flight plans well ahead of takeoff using existing weather and turbulence data. Unfortunately, as soon as they take off, their plan is old news. Planes have radar that can see hundreds of miles in front of the plane’s path, but it’s not a great indicator of turbulence, especially CAT.

The technology that will hopefully locate and predict upcoming air turbulence is a combination of WiFi connectivity, tablet apps and what is essentially data “crowdsourcing.”

Delta is already using their “Flight Weather Viewer” app. The app shows actual and predicted turbulence in 3D color-coded maps, calculated by pulling in information from avionics sensors on aircraft in flight, transmitted in real time by their WiFi supplier, Gogo. Honeywell has created a similar app, GoDirect.

By analyzing data from hundreds of planes (“crowdsourcing” it), current turbulence information and predictions can be displayed to pilots in real time, allowing them to alter their flight path and warn passengers and crew. The system should be able to forecast much of the invisible CAT that isn’t well predicted today.

Even when pilots are able to avoid more air turbulence than they can today, or at least predict it better to warn passengers, it will still be up to passengers to help themselves prevent injury during turbulence on their flights.

Whenever you fly:

  • Fasten your seatbelt. When seated, all passengers should keep their seatbelts snugly fastened throughout their flights, whether the seatbelt sign is on or not. Seatbelts don’t have to be so tight that they’re uncomfortable. Make yours loose enough so you can shift your seat position, but snug enough to prevent you from being thrown out of your seat in severe turbulence. If you’re sleeping in a lie-flat seat, wear your seatbelt tight enough to keep safe. In my opinion, children should never sit in a parent’s lap on an airplane. No one is strong enough to hold their children, even babies, in their lap during severe turbulence. Belt your children in approved child safety seats, appropriate for their age and size, strapped to their own separate seats on the plane.
  • Stow gear not in use. Games, tablets, cameras, music players, laptop computers, etc. can become projectiles if a flight encounters severe turbulence. Stow them when they’re not being used. Push your personal item well under the seat in front of you to prevent it from flying around in severe turbulence.
  • Keep overhead bin doors closed at all times. If you retrieve anything from the overhead bin, make sure you close the bin door and be sure it’s latched. If another passenger leaves the door open, take charge of your safety and close it yourself to prevent bags and gear stowed there from falling or flying around the cabin during air turbulence.
  • Follow flight crew instructions. Listen to flight crew directives and follow them. If the seatbelt sign is turned on during your flight, remain in your seat, or if elsewhere in the cabin, immediately return to your seat, then buckle up.
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You might never encounter severe air turbulence, but it’s always a possibility. Stay safe. Prepare for the worst by following my suggestions, while hoping for the best.

Ned Levi

Ned Levi has traveled the world as an engineer and business executive. He is the founder of NSL Associates, a technology consulting company, and is a professional photographer specializing in travel and wildlife photography.

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