Comment: Are more turbulent times ahead for air passengers?

We should expect increased turbulence as the world warms, with cabin crew most at risk, says Andy Cooper

The turbulence which affected a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft over Myanmar last month, causing a number of serious injuries and the death of one passenger who suffered a heart attack in flight, raised the level of awareness of turbulence during flights among many travellers.

The aircraft apparently dropped 54 metres in less than five seconds.

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The good news is that it is incredibly rare for a commercial aircraft to crash as a result of turbulence, but this does not prevent nasty inflight injuries occurring.

It is a topic which will clearly interest those working in the aviation sector, but I believe that anyone engaged in offering flight programmes needs to have some basic understanding of the risks and impacts of turbulence.

There have been suggestions that turbulence is increasing both in frequency and severity as a result of global warming, and that view appears to be borne out by academic research.

Recently, a team from Reading University undertook a study and discovered that severe turbulence increased 55% between 1979 and 2020 on a typically busy North Atlantic route, which they attributed to changes in wind speed at high altitudes due to warmer air from carbon emissions.

These findings appear to be replicated in other parts of the world.

In practice, cabin crew are probably at most risk of being injured by turbulence events, which is not surprising as they spend more time on their feet in flight than anyone else. About 80% of serious turbulence injuries are experienced by cabin crew.

Fortunately, the numbers remain relatively low and the Singapore Airlines incident gathered many of its headlines due to its unusual severity.

There are clearly some steps that airlines can and do take to avoid the impacts of turbulence, although the challenge is that Clear Air Turbulence – meaning turbulence in the absence of any visual clues – is often difficult to predict or forecast, and therefore more difficult to avoid than turbulence caused simply by wind variations.

For a number of years now, passengers have been advised on boarding to keep their seatbelts loosely fastened during any flight, although I am not sure how widely obeyed this request is.

Singapore Airlines announced implementation a number of operational changes, describing this as “a more cautious approach”.

In particular, it said: “In addition to the suspension of hot beverage service when the seat belt sign is on, the meal service will also be suspended.

“Crew members will also return to their seats and secure their seat belts when the seat belt sign is on.”

These measures seem basic and sensible, and one can only wonder why some changes were not adopted earlier.

The other issue that those involved in selling flights need to keep in mind is that, while the risk of injury is fortunately small, it does raise the possibility of claims being brought by affected passengers – and by virtue of the Package Travel Regulations, those claims could be brought against the seller of the flight as well as, or even instead of, against the affected airline.

In practice, airlines carry high levels of insurance against this type of risk and will generally handle any claims. But as with all areas of litigation, there is always some uncertainty.

So, turbulence is becoming more common and more severe, and we can only expect there to be more incidents as the planet continues to warm.

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