UPDATE, March 31: After the below article was published on March 16, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board released findings that the severe movements of a private jet that resulted in a passenger's death—an incident cited below—were not caused by turbulence but by the pilots disabling a setting used to stabilize the plane. The pilots were acting in response to warning messages from the aircraft.
It’s one of the more loathsome announcements you’ll hear during a flight. The captain comes over the intercom and announces the seat belt sign is coming back on because of turbulence ahead.
So much for a nice, tranquil flight, you may think to yourself.
Or, in the wake of several recent incidents of headline-making turbulence, you may find yourself wondering if the choppiness in store could prove dangerous or even life-threatening.
Back in December, dozens of people were injured aboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight due to severe turbulence. Preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reveal the pilot reported a cloud “shot up in front of the airplane in a matter of seconds, and there was not enough time to deviate.”
Then in February, a Lufthansa flight from Texas to Germany had to divert to Virginia's Washington Dulles International Airport after turbulence injured several people in the sky over Tennessee. And, tragically, a passenger aboard a business jet died amid severe turbulence this month on a fight from New Hampshire to Virginia. [Ed. After this article was published, National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined that the jet's violent movements were not caused by weather-related turbulence.]
What’s behind this spate of dangerous turbulence? And what does it mean for your future trips?
Turbulence injuries rare, but possible
Turbulence is a problem as old as flight itself. Choppiness can arise due to a variety of factors, the National Weather Service notes—anything from the air around mountain ridges to atmospheric pressure or the intersection of cold and warm weather fronts.
Dangerously, turbulence can also happen with little to no warning. That's called "clear-air turbulence."
“Turbulence is not completely understood, and it’s probably one of our most challenging things to forecast,” said Thomas Guinn, aviation meteorology expert on the faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“It’s really difficult to pinpoint or forecast exactly where the turbulence is,” he added, explaining how even the best weather models typically can’t home in on the precise pockets of air that generate turbulence. That's why pilots sharing information with one another is so important.
Chances are, you’ve felt at least some minor bumps on most flights you’ve taken. But while uncommon among the tens of thousands of daily commercial flights in the U.S., more serious instances of turbulence do happen.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has logged a total of 146 serious, turbulence-related injuries on major commercial flights between 2009 and 2021. Overwhelmingly, flight attendants and other crew members have been hurt the most.
Despite the recent high-profile events, the FAA's data does not show a noticeable upward trend in turbulence over the last few years.
Nevertheless, a scientific study published this month warns that climate change could fuel choppier skies in the coming decades.
“The aviation sector should prepare for a more turbulent future,” the study concluded, predicting “more flights disrupted and increased damages and costs.”
To help address the issue, the NTSB made some two dozen safety recommendations related to turbulence in a 2021 report, calling for improved weather forecasting and more robust sharing of turbulence data between airlines, air traffic controllers, and pilots.
The report also recommended flight attendants spend more air time seated and buckled up, and called on the FAA to mandate child safety restraints, even for the youngest passengers ages 2 and under.
How many of these injury-prevention measures have been implemented so far? Zero.
“All 25 turbulence recommendations remain open," as in unresolved, said NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy at the FAA’s March 15 safety summit in Washington, D.C.
She lambasted federal regulators and airlines alike for their inaction, saying, “Addressing these and so many issues is how we make our skies safer.”
In the meantime, the list of steps experts say you should take to protect yourself from turbulence on your next flight is very short: Listen to the pilot and crew, and fasten your seat belt.
Don’t worry about anything happening to the plane, Guinn said. "The odds of having a mechanical failure due to [turbulence] are pretty remote.”
In fact, the NTSB has documented aircraft damage in just a tiny portion of turbulence accidents on major commercial flights, and that damage usually just involved seats, ceiling panels, or overhead bins as opposed to, say, the wings or engines.
“Put your seat belt on and leave it on,” Guinn advised. “There’s very little that can hurt you if you stay seated, if you’re buckled in.”
If you get up to use the lavatory, put your seat belt back on when you return to your seat, whether the overhead sign is illuminated or not.
The NTSB has further cautioned parents against choosing to carry unrestrained infants on their laps, though there are obvious logistical and financial implications to that decision. For starters, you'd have to purchase a seat on the plane for your baby, when passengers ages 2 and younger may otherwise travel for free on the lap of an adult on domestic flights.
The NTSB acknowledged the added expense and inconvenience in its 2021 report, but also warned, “Many parents have little or no knowledge of the serious risk to which they are exposing their children" when little ones are unrestrained on flights.
Buckling up is your best bet
The recent series of severe turbulence events has, rightfully, turned attention back on this midair phenomenon with effects ranging from nauseating nuisance to serious injury, and that raised awareness may put pressure on government regulators and airlines to do more to reduce the risks.
For passengers, though, heeding the captain and flight crew’s warnings to stay seated—and buckled up whenever seated, as the instructions at the start of every flight suggest—are still your safest bets for enduring choppy skies.