TravelRisk: Turbulence is one of the most frequent causes of injuries on airplanes

    • Turbulence is one of the most frequent causes of injuries on airplanes, every year in the United States some 65,000 aircraft suffer moderate turbulence and 5,500 run into severe turbulence, costing the US airlines up to $500 million per year, due to injuries, delays and damages.
    • It is time to develop solutions that mitigate the risk of injury due to turbulence, perhaps a bicycle style helmet for flight attendants? 
    • This article reports that Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 on 21 May 2024 was not hit by clear air turbulence, but rapidly developing thunderstorms.

Most of us have experienced turbulence while traveling: when your plane flies through clashing bodies of air moving at widely different speeds.

Severe turbulence can put even the most seasoned flier on edge and make five minutes seem like an eternity. Usually it results in nothing more than a bumpy ride, but in the worst cases it can cause damage, injury and – in the case of Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 on May 21 – fatality.

In nonfatal accidents, turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to flight attendants and passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and it’s one of the most common airline accident types today, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board. It costs US airlines – due to injuries, delays and damages – up to $500 million per year, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“There is a scale for measuring how strong turbulence is,” Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the UK, told CNN in 2022. “There’s light turbulence, which is a bit of strain against your seat belt, but food service can continue and you can probably walk around the cabin, maybe with some difficulty.

“Then there’s moderate turbulence, a definite strain against seat belts, anything that’s not secured will be dislodged, and walking is difficult; flight attendants are usually instructed to take their seats.

“The worst kind is severe turbulence: This is stronger than gravity, so it can pin you to your seat and if you’re not wearing your seat belt you’ll be tossed around inside the cabin. This is the kind of turbulence that causes serious Injuries – it’s been known to break bones, for example.”

Strikes fast and no visual clues

About 65,000 aircraft suffer moderate turbulence every year in the US, and about 5,500 run into severe turbulence. These numbers, however, might be destined to grow. Williams believes that climate change is modifying turbulence, and started studying the subject in 2013. “We ran some computer simulations and found that severe turbulence could double or triple in the coming decades,” he says.

The findings, which were later confirmed by observations, highlight a type of turbulence called “clear air turbulence,” which isn’t connected to any visual clues such as storms or clouds. Unlike regular turbulence, it hits suddenly and is hard to avoid. The Singapore Airlines flight of May 21 was not hit by clear air turbulence, but rapidly developing thunderstorms.

According to the NTSB, between 2009 and 2018, the flight crew had no warning in about 28% of turbulence-related accidents. Williams’ analysis predicts that clear-air turbulence will increase significantly around the globe by the period 2050-2080, in particular along the busiest flight routes, and the strongest type of turbulence will increase the most.

That doesn’t mean, however, that flying will be less safe. “Planes are not going to start falling out of the sky, because aircraft are built to very high specification and they can withstand the worst turbulence they can ever expect to encounter, even in the future,” says Williams.

However, the average duration of turbulence will increase. “Typically, on a transatlantic flight, you might expect 10 minutes of turbulence. I think that in a few decades this may increase to 20 minutes or to half an hour. The seat belt sign will be switched on a lot more, unfortunately for passengers.”

The seat belt sign is now switched on

Keeping your seat belt fastened at all times while seated is the best way to minimize the risk of injury due to turbulence.

Flight attendants, however, are more exposed to that risk than passengers and sustain approximately 80% of all turbulence-related injuries. “We’re the most likely to get hurt because we’re up working, pushing 300-pound carts, even when there’s some sort of warning,” Sara Nelson, a United flight attendant with more than two decades of experience and the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines, told CNN in 2022.

“We have flight attendants who have been thrown into the ceiling and then back down several times, resulting in broken limbs. In the aisle, with unannounced turbulence, we had people who lost toes, or lost the ability to work, or sustained injuries that kept them off the job for years,” she adds.

The aviation industry is taking the problem very seriously, Nelson says, but the transition to sustainable fuel must accelerate to tackle the climate crisis, and some regulations need to change. For example, the ability for children under the age of two to fly on their parents’ lap.

“That is totally unsafe and our union has been calling for a seat for every person on board,” Nelson says. “Not only can a child be thrown around the cabin, but when they come down they can actually hurt someone else, too. When a child is born, you can’t leave the hospital unless you have a properly installed car seat. The same standards must be applied to flying.”

Calls for stringent new rules

The NTSB held a public meeting about turbulence in 2021, during which it offered the same recommendation, along with more stringent rules about fastening seat belts for both passengers and flight attendants when the aircraft is flying in the vicinity of thunderstorms and under 20,000 feet, as most injuries occur under these conditions. It also recommended to streamline the systems for collecting and sharing turbulence reports, because that information isn’t traveling widely or promptly enough at the moment.

While the effects of climate change on turbulence will take many years to become obvious, Nelson believes some worsening has already occurred.

“This is of course anecdotal, but from Hurricane Katrina forward there seems to have been a pickup in the activity of turbulence, especially turbulence that comes with no warning,” she says.

Her worst ever turbulence experience occurred during a flight to Dallas, which was eventually diverted.

“When anything happens on the plane, the passengers look to us, to see if we look concerned,” she adds. “I was flying with a very good friend of mine and we were strapped in on the jump seats, facing the back of the aircraft – so there was a lavatory in front of us, instead of passengers.

“Thank goodness, because we were clutching each other and we were getting thrown around in our seats so violently that it felt like our brains were getting scrambled. It went on for a very long time, but luckily we got safely on the ground,” she says.

“Typically I’m not scared of turbulence, because it’s something that we’re taught about in training and we know what to do to protect ourselves. But it is possible to have turbulence so bad and go on for so long that even knowing all of that, my friend and I were praying – and I have to say I was scared for my life.”

This story was originally published in September 2022. It was updated and republished in May 2024 by CNN.

Travelrisk Weather: Korean Air flight KE361 Airbus A330 overshot runway in Cebu, Philippines

Korean Air says jet overran runway in Philippines, no injuries reported

A Korean Air Lines Co Ltd (003490.KS) jet with 173 people on board overshot the runway at Cebu International Airport in the Philippines late on Sunday, the airline said, adding that there were no injuries and all passengers had evacuated safely.

The Airbus SE (AIR.PA) A330 widebody flying from Seoul to Cebu had tried twice to land in poor weather before it overran the runway on the third attempt at 23:07 (1507 GMT), Korean Air said in a statement on Monday.

“Passengers have been escorted to three local hotels and an alternative flight is being arranged,” the airline said of flight KE361. “We are currently identifying the cause of the incident.”

Video from the scene verified by Reuters showed widespread damage to the plane. The nose landing gear appeared to have collapsed.

Korean Air President Keehong Woo issued an apology on the airline’s website, saying a thorough investigation would be carried out by Philippine and South Korean authorities to determine the cause.

Korean Air jet overruns runway at Cebu International Airport in Philippines
Response crews gather around a Korean Air Airbus A330 widebody flying from Seoul to Cebu, which tried to land twice in poor weather before it overran the runway on the third attempt on Sunday, in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, Philippines October 24, 2022 in this picture obtained from social media. Randyl Dungog/via REUTERS

“We remain committed to standing behind our promise of safe operations and will do our very best to institute measures to prevent its recurrence,” Woo said.

The A330-300 jet involved in the accident was delivered new to Korean Air in 1998, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, which said that other flights to Cebu had diverted to other airports or returned to their origin.

The Cebu airport said on its Facebook page that it had temporarily closed the runway to allow for the removal of the plane, meaning all domestic and international flights were cancelled until further notice.

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Korean Air has not had a fatal passenger crash since 1997, according to Aviation Safety Network, a website that compiles aviation accidents.

The airline had a poor safety record at that time but sought outside help from Boeing Co (BA.N) and Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) to improve its standards.

Reported by Reuters on 24 October 2022.

Travelrisk from Stored Aircraft because of COVID-19? Was Storage a Factor in the Boeing 737 Sriwijaya Flight 182 Crash in Indonesia?

Boeing 737 Sriwijaya Flight 182 Crashed in Indonesia Just After Takeoff on 9 January 2021.

Did the downturn of air travel caused by COVID-19 contribute to this crash?

The Sriwijaya 737 aircraft had been in storage for 9 months in Surabaya and was inspected on 14 December 2020 and since 19 December 2020 operated 132 flights.

Storage may have been a factor in the crash, aircraft must be kept operating otherwise they deteriorate. Mothballed planes pose a safety risk.

Weather Risk – Typhoon Pakhar impacts Hong Kong flights

Severe Tropical Storm Pakhar casus flight chaos at Hong Kong International Airport

The 2nd major storm to hit Hong Kong within a week leads to 206 flight cancellations and 471 delays

Forty-two landing attempts were aborted at Hong Kong International Airport between 7am and 7.30pm on Sunday as winds whipped up by Severe Tropical Storm Pakhar made conditions unsafe.

A review by the Post of data from Flightradar24, which tracks commercial flight movements, found some aircraft tried two or even three times to make a safe touchdown, as crosswinds and wind shear, which exerts a turning force on aircraft, wreaked havoc on operations.

Some pilots eventually opted to divert to other airports, with Xiamen, Kaoshiung, Haikou, Manila and Bangkok taking a large chunk of flights.

Diverted aircraft included Cathay Pacific flight 238 from London, which made no fewer than three failed attempts at landing before being diverted to Kaoshiung. Another flight, CX616 from Bangkok, made one failed attempt to touch down before flying back to the Thai capital.

A Hong Kong finance worker who asked not to be named said his flight to Singapore was supposed to depart at 11.15am on Sunday, but had been delayed twice.

On Twitter, affected fliers complained of delays, with one hitting out at Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay for bumping him to a flight on Tuesday.

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said 44 flights had been diverted to other destinations.

A total of 206 flights were cancelled and 471 delayed due to the storm, with 50 planes left stuck on the tarmac at one point in the day as the city was pummelled by its second severe storm in a week.

The Hong Kong Observatory issued a T8 warning on Sunday morning as Pakhar lashed the city with heavy rain, but downgraded that signal to T3 at 1.40pm and T1 at 5.40pm.

Both of the airport’s runways were set to operate overnight instead of the usual one, to cope with a backlog of flights.

At noon on Sunday, all airlines closed their check-in services until 2pm.

Earlier in the week, more than 450 flights were cancelled due to Typhoon Hato, which hit the city on Wednesday and caused major damage.

The typhoon left 10 people dead in nearby Macau and at least 244 people injured.

On Sunday, as Pakhar lashed the city, an authority spokesman advised travellers to check the status of their flight before coming to the airport.

“Operations are quite severely affected,” he said.

The spokesman said flights were still coming and going from the airport on Sunday afternoon, but a flight attendant on a Delta plane waiting to take off said no planes were taking off or landing, according to a Post reporter on board an affected flight.

The pilot for flight DL38 to Seattle said that at one point 20 planes were stuck on the runway waiting for safer conditions, while another 30 were waiting to push off from the terminal.

He estimated that take-off could be a few hours away at the very least.

Now we are just stuck on the flight like sitting ducks

Flights heading southeast of Hong Kong were largely cancelled, while planes to Thailand, Japan and the United States boarded their passengers, the pilot said.

Mark Stranson, aboard DL38 after visiting Hong Kong on business, said he was pleased with the decision not to fly.

“I’d prefer that they delayed us before boarding because now we are just stuck on the flight like sitting ducks, but I’m glad they’re not trying to fly in this weather.”

But Cheri Cheung Wing-lam, a Georgetown University student, expressed concern she would miss her connecting flight.

“I cannot believe we have to sit here for so long, they shouldn’t have boarded us if they were going to keep us waiting. I’m thankful they’re not risking anything and that they provided refreshments, but I cannot imagine sitting here for hours.”

 Reported by South China Morning Post on27 August 2017.