What is Causing All of This Severe Turbulence?
There may be a reason behind your bumpy ride.
Turbulence and the injuries caused onboard because of it have been a hot topic in the news. It seems like every other day a plane is facing a severely bumpy ride landing many passengers and crew members in the hospital with injuries.
On Monday night a flight was forced to return to Boston after hitting extreme turbulence that caused people to throw up, pass out, and other bodily injuries. And just over a week ago, eight people were sent to the hospital after a similar scenario occurred on a JetBlue flight from Puerto Rico to Orlando. So, what gives?
We reached out to a few experts to find out if there really is in fact more turbulence and what could potentially be causing it. The answers ranged in reasoning blaming everything from climate change to social media.
While commercial pilot Chris Cooke tells us “there’s little doubt that climate change is creating more intense weather phenomena,” meteorologist Justin Abraham says it’s not crystal clear. “It's difficult to pinpoint whether or not recent weather patterns are directly related to an increase in turbulence, although there are notable connections,” he tells Travel + Leisure. “Data shows a warming environment/climate change is linked to more so-called ‘extreme’ weather conditions, stronger storms, and warmer temperatures, which could result in more occurrences of turbulence. Last year (2015) was the warmest year on record for Earth, and 2016 has started off warm as well. It's just a little too early to confidently link climate change to an increase in turbulence.”
Related: What Exactly is Turbulence?
From pilots to dispatchers, the number of people involved in making sure planes fly safely all over the world is astounding. But, that leaves room for human error when it comes to navigating choppy skies. “Some air transport companies are new to the airline industry and may have inexperienced dispatchers and pilots, who either don’t have access to predictive data or don’t know how to interpret that data,” Cooke adds.
Luckily, most of the well established North American, European, and a handful of Asian airlines have experienced dispatchers who will alert pilots to areas of known or forecast turbulence, and route them around troubled areas, according to Cooke.
Another issue when it comes to inexperience is the fact that many veteran pilots are hitting retirement age and newbies are taking their spots. “The airlines are losing many of their most experienced pilots due to mandatory retirements too,” notes Cooke. “It is going to take a while for the replacements to acquire the knowledge and experience to safely navigate through and around these challenging weather patterns.”
It does seem these extreme turbulence reports have been picking up steam over the past couple of months as the weather began to warm up. “In the spring and fall when weather patterns are changing there are always some rough days to fly,” commercial pilot Donald McKerrow tells us. “Basically, differences in heating of the earth's surface cause big pressure differences which in turn cause unusually high windy days. When two pressure systems, with different pressures and temperatures, come close, you are in for a really rough ride.”
Despite these reasons for the increased turbulence, the number of passengers and flight crew injured by turbulence is relatively low according to the FAA. Just 21 people were injured in 2015 out of thousands of flights and millions of passengers.
“The so-called increase in turbulence could just be the fact more people have smartphones and are able to publicize incidents more so than in the past,” says Abraham. McKerrow adds, “Maybe with the increase in popularity of social media, it's just reported more.”
The good news is, as uncomfortable as turbulence is, you can be near certain it will never be powerful enough to break up the airplane. “If passengers have their seat belt on they should be fine even in severe turbulence,” concludes McKerrow. “The biggest danger would be getting hit with a soda can or something else flying through the cabin. “