Last updated: 01:00 PM ET, Mon January 04 2016

Blindsided by Turbulence: Why Keeping Your Seatbelt Fastened is a Good Idea

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | January 04, 2016

Blindsided by Turbulence: Why Keeping Your Seatbelt Fastened is a Good Idea

Radar image courtesy of Honeywell Aerospace

An Air Canada flight from Shanghai to Toronto on December 31st was only the latest incident in which airline passengers and crewmembers were injured as a result of turbulence during flight. While turbulence injuries are far from rare, there is one preventative measure that works every time — the seat belt.

During this particular flight, 21 people were injured, including three children. One passenger told the CBC, “"The fellow sitting in front of me went flying up, hit the ceiling and came flying down," he said. "Everything went flying: newspapers, blankets, cellphones, glasses. They were just flying all over the place.”

Living in Denver, we have turbulence prior to landing pretty much year-round. Frequent fliers know they can expect an announcement like this about 30 minutes before landing, “Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has asked us to clean up the cabin early due to turbulence expected as we approach Denver.” It’s just the nature of the beast. During any flight to anywhere, the pilots will normally turn off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, with the caveat recommendation to keep it fastened while seated.

Listen to your pilots. They’ve been doing this awhile, and they have some very fancy equipment that enables them to tell when turbulence is imminent. A 2014 report from the FAA shows an uptick in turbulence injuries during the last two moderate El Nino seasons: 2002-2003 and 2009-2010. Numbers aren’t in yet for this current El Nino span, which climatologists say is one of the strongest on record.

Head, neck and spine injuries are common with turbulence, because when the plane drops, you temporarily become weightless and can smash into the ceiling above you. Hands/wrists, ribs and feet are also susceptible to injury as you fall awkwardly without enough time to brace yourself.

We can thank companies like Honeywell, Panasonic and WSI for developing technologies that make it possible for most turbulence to be detected in time to go around most of it. But even when the skies don’t look stormy, there’s a phenomenon called “clear air turbulence.” It’s invisible, making it impossible for pilots to warn flight attendants and passengers to be seated. This is the cause of most turbulence-related injuries.

Clear air turbulence is often found 50-100 miles behind the leading edge of a cold front, as cold air forces its way under warmer, lighter air, creating instability in the atmosphere at the vicinity of cruising altitude on most commercial flights.

The only real way for pilots to avoid clear air turbulence is by pilot reports, or PIREPS. If another plane has recently flown your same path and encountered turbulence, they report it to Air Traffic Control. New, automated reports are also making their way to pilots as more and more aircraft are being equipped with sensors that record and report weather and turbulence.

For example, American Airlines uses WSI’s “Total Turbulence” product. At their headquarters in Fort Worth, American’s meteorologists receive data from flights that are still in the air, and can generate reports for other pilots either before or during their flight. 


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