Following the recent Hawaiian Airlines mass casualty incident, turbulence remains in our minds and apparently everyone else’s. Flight 35 encountered extreme clear-air turbulence on December 18 as it was nearing Honolulu. Three dozen were injured, 20 went to the hospital, and 11 were seriously injured following turbulence and an altitude drop severe enough to send passengers smashing into the overhead compartments and ceiling. In one of the videos from the event, the flight crew pleaded for trained medical or firefighters to step forward to help.
Just before its descent, about one-half hour from landing, in clear weather and with nothing on radar (but with severe nearby storms), the pilot reported a vertical cloud shot up out of nowhere directly in front of him so quickly that he was unable to get around it.
The NTSB report said the cloud (which occurred in otherwise clear air) caused that unusually forceful turbulence, causing a drop in altitude, injuring passengers and crew, and even causing aircraft damage.
Controversy followed this Association of Flight Attendants statement.
Recently CBS published an article quoting the Association of Flight Attendants saying that airline turbulence will become more common, perhaps due to climate change.
Severe weather increases chances of turbulence, and due to climate change, these kinds of incidents will only continue to grow. — Tahlor Garland, AFA.
Others claimed the story was balderdash, and pushback included that the flight attendants’ union shouldn’t comment on climate change and that they should further be ashamed of themselves. Some naysayers conclude there isn’t data to support climate change in the first place and that those doing so are a part of a get-rich scheme associated with some political narrative.
Some studies have indicated at least the potential for a relationship between changing atmospheric conditions and clear air turbulence. Undoubtedly that is something we’ll be learning much more about going forward.
And while technology arguably makes turbulence easier to predict and plan for (try telling Hawaiian Airlines and their passengers that!), that sure hasn’t prevented or explained some terrible incidents like the one that just happened.
Shocking Hawaiian Airlines turbulence video. Warning: video contains disturbing images.
— World Latin Honey (@WorldLatinHoney) December 21, 2022
Another clear air turbulence incident injured 37, resulting in a Hawaii flight diversion.
In 2019, more than three dozen passengers and flight crew were injured when an Air Canada 777 widebody hit extreme clear air turbulence about two hours southwest of Hawaii. The flight from Vancouver to Sydney diverted to Honolulu, and thirty people were taken to local hospitals.
Should you worry about Hawaii flight turbulence?
The FAA defines turbulence as “air movement created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, the air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms.” It can be unexpected and happen when the sky appears clear. Turbulence can give an airplane a sudden jolt, injuring passengers and crewmembers who aren’t buckled in.
According to FAA-reported data, at least, getting seriously injured in turbulence is quite rare. In the 13 years ending 2021, there were 146 severe injuries due to airline turbulence. That comes out to 11 passengers a year.
What can passengers do to avoid injuries caused by air turbulence?
The FAA says, “Passengers can easily prevent injuries from unexpected turbulence by keeping their seat belt buckled at all times. The FAA’s tips for staying safe:
- “Listen to the pilots and flight attendants — FAA regulations require passengers to be seated with their seat belts fastened whenever the seat belt sign is illuminated during flight.
- Pay attention to the safety briefing at the beginning of your flight and read the safety briefing card.
- Use an approved child safety seat or device if your child is under two.
- Prevent inflight injuries by adhering to your airline’s carry-on restrictions.”
The FAA is actively working to prevent turbulence injuries.
The FAA developed specific guidelines for the airlines to help avoid risks due to turbulence when airliners encounter it. That is based on work by the NTSB. The FAA also has several programs to help reduce airline turbulence injuries. Those include:
- Improved data collection and sharing.
- Modernizing the Pilot Report System (PIREPS), where pilots communicate weather conditions, including turbulence.
- Improving automation to enable pilots and air traffic controllers to digitally enter and share reports rather than having to do so verbally.
- Encouraging pilots to file more reports.
- Using more data in dispatching.
- Training for air traffic controllers about the importance of soliciting and disseminating PIREPs.
- Using automation and data displays to route aircraft around weather systems.
- Promoting real-time information sharing between pilot and dispatcher and including turbulence in weather briefings.
Passengers can easily prevent injuries by following FAA guidelines, including keeping seat belts buckled at all times. And FAA regulations require passengers to be seated with their seat belts fastened:
- When the airplane leaves the gate and as it climbs after takeoff.
- During landing and taxi.
- Whenever the seat belt sign is illuminated during flight.
On a nicer note: In-flight turbulence and a great flight attendant go viral.
The Delta flight attendant above, comforting a frightened passenger during turbulence, went viral after CNN picked it up. That speaks to the level of concern turbulence causes. Delta’s Floyd Dean-Shannon helped the passenger on the mainland flight get through it and is seen holding her hand. Way to go!
The flight attendant who just started in the position three months ago is quoted as saying, “Hey, I have you,” while seated in the aisle next to her. Dean-Shannon told CNN the passenger said, “I don’t want this; I’m embarrassed.” And he replied, “there’s no need to be embarrassed; I’m here.”
Floyd was quoted on Delta’s website: “As a flight attendant, you set the tone. As a passenger, I would want to be treated the same way. I have to remember; I was in that seat, too… When she came onto the plane, she was a little nervous… Before we even took off, she started sweating.”
Seasoned pilot Dave Wallsworth discusses airliner turbulence.
Dave was recently asked questions on his popular Twitter feed about turbulence and how to plan for it. One of the questions asked was how passengers could know if turbulence would be bad. When do you consider turbulence bad? Are you in contact with those around you to see how their ride is going?
Dave: Bad to me is when we have to get passengers to sit down and fasten their belts. Really bad is when we have to get the crew to do the same. We will always do our best to minimize the time in bad turbulence, and yes, we get reports from other aircraft around us. I prefer to be honest with people and say if I think it’s going to be a little bumpy at times so people aren’t surprised and also know we are expecting it. Turbulence really isn’t a problem… I’m always more concerned about the well-being of the passengers and crew rather than being worried about the aircraft. It will be fine.”
— Captain Dave (@DaveWallsworth) January 24, 2023
Dave is a highly regarded, 30-year veteran wide-body pilot. BOH editors Rob and Jeff had the opportunity to fly with Dave on an A380 British Airways flight he piloted from London to Johannesburg. As an aside, that was pretty amazing for lifelong fliers and aviation buffs such as them. For those who might want to see what one of Dave’s flights looks like from his cockpit view, we’ve got that video too.