Why Your Flights Have Been Seeming More Turbulent Lately (Video)
Seven people threw up on a Delta flight from Minneapolis to San Jose last week due to severe turbulence. Last month, “pretty much everyone on the plane,” threw up during a particularly turbulent descent to Washington Dulles Airport. Even the pilots reported being on the verge of vomit.
Unusual weather patterns and strong winds have generated multiple reports of nauseous passengers over the past few weeks. And it could be getting worse.
A study from the University of Reading last year predicted that climate change could lead to a 149-percent increase in severe turbulence. And another study published in Geophysical Research Letters predicted that clear air turbulence (impossible to see and difficult to predict with radar) could increase threefold in 30 years, due to climate change.
Significant, sudden changes in global temperature could lead to rougher and more frequent air pockets above the world’s jet stream winds, creating worse and more frequent turbulence.
Like a boat through choppy waters, airplanes experience turbulence in rough winds. These rough winds can be caused when a mountain or large man-made structure pushes air up from below, when a pilot moves from one course of airflow to another (like crossing into a jet stream to take advantage of fast winds), or when warm air rises through cooler air Turbulence can also be affected by seasonal weather patterns.
Different aircraft react to turbulence in different ways: “You feel the turbulence on an aircraft depending on two factors: one is the type of aircraft — the turbulence is not felt the same in different types of aircraft,” Gilberto López Meyer, senior vice president of safety and flight operations of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said at a conference in December. When passing through the same patch of air, travelers on a large commercial aircraft would feel less turbulence than those on a small private jet. Airspeed can also affect how turbulence affects the plane.
While frequent fliers may notice their routes getting bumpier, aircraft manufacturers are working on technology that could mitigate the effects of turbulence for those in the cabin. Boeing is developing a laser that, when attached to the nose of an aircraft, could help pilots avoid clear air turbulence. This technology would give pilots a chance to dodge the path of rough air or allow flight attendants enough time to secure the cabin.
In the meantime, travelers who remember to keep their seatbelt fastened throughout flights likely don't need to worry about safety during turbulence. In 2016, only 44 people were injured by turbulence — the majority of which were flight crew or passengers who were not wearing their seatbelts. And it’s highly unlikely that the structure of the plane will be compromised by turbulence. Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that aircraft be engineered to withstand much, much more turbulence than most will ever encounter.