Severe turbulence like the episode that injured dozens on a recent Air Canada flight to Hawaii is becoming more frequent. Though the experience would certainly be unsettling, what does it really mean for air travelers?
Scientists with the World Meteorological Organization say the amount of turbulence in the air is going to at least double by 2050. That means flying is going to get a lot more bouncy, but not necessarily a lot more dangerous.
Veteran pilots and aeroengineers claim there’s little reason to believe a plane will crash because of turbulence. Planes are made to withstand even the most extreme weather scenarios and climate conditions. (Many aerospace companies use facilities like the McKinley Climatic Laboratory to test parts and aircraft.) And for pilots, navigating through turbulence isn’t a particularly scary proposition.
As the seatbelt sign flashes and the cabin crew is asked to take their seats, Patrick Smith, who writes the Ask The Pilot blog, says the concern in the cockpit is usually more about spilling a glass of orange juice than about anything aeronautically serious.
Pilots do take turbulence seriously, but technology and forecasting are so far advanced that “bumps” are predicted and planned for well in advance. That’s why a good pilot often gives a heads-up report even before takeoff, or just minutes after.
What causes turbulence and how to avoid it
Turbulence is caused by bubbles of air or air parcels. In warmer temperatures, air parcels will rise. Parcels rise until they become the same temperature or cooler than the air around them. As they rise, air parcels — more technically called “thermals” — create bubbles or pockets of air, which are the so-called bumps we experience when we fly. Paul D. Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, explains the science behind the numbers in his report to the Aeronautical Meteorology Scientific Conference, which also explains in more detail how changes in the jet stream affect how long a flight will take.
To avoid bumpy air, it’s best to fly when it’s cooler during wintertime or during early morning hours or later at night.
“In the morning, the sun has not had a chance to heat the surface, so the air should be relatively smooth as long as there is little wind. Another good time to fly is in the evening close to sunset. The sun is not positioned at a good angle to heat the surface, so the energy provided to cause the rising thermals is gone and the atmosphere is more stable,” the National Weather Service explains.
Obviously it’s going to be bumpiest to fly during the summer as there are more pockets of hot air closer to the ground trying to escape to higher altitudes. And global warming means there’s increasingly more heat to contend with.
Still, turbulence isn’t all just hot air. Mountain ranges, the jet stream and stormy weather can all bring about turbulence.
To make flying a smoother experience, take that early morning or “red-eye” flight at night. Consider a flight track that skirts mountain ranges, such as the Rocky Mountains. Maybe even plan to fly only for winter vacations and drive during your summer holidays.
The seat you choose can also make a difference in how much turbulence you feel. Seats closest to the wings reduce bounce because they’re closest to the plane’s center of mass. Keeping your seatbelt secure and tight will prevent you from lifting out of your seat and plopping you back down.
The vast majority of people injured during flight turbulence are hurt because they aren’t wearing seat belts; that’s reason enough to mind that seat belt sign.
If those facts don’t quite tame your nerves, here’s a statistic that should provide some comfort: Only 34 people of the nearly 800 million airline passengers who travel each year get injured on account of turbulence — and remember, the majority of them are flight attendants.
A wise flyer will check the weather expected along the route. That can and should limit bumpy surprises. It also gives you the opportunity to change flight plans.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published in February 2015.