Fasten your seatbelt – because we’re in for some bumpy flights. Rising temperatures and changes in the jet stream have dramatically increased the amount of turbulence in the air, according to research from the University of Reading.
Severe turbulence has increased by 55 percent from 1979 to 2020 and is expected to become more intense, more frequent and longer lasting in the future.
That’s the bad news, but luckily pilots and cabin crew say we’re safer than we think, no matter how turbulent life gets at 35,000 feet.
“Modern aircraft are incredibly strong and pilots are trained and ready for turbulence,” says British Airways Captain Steve Allright, who leads the airline’s Flying with Confidence course for nervous passengers. He says most turbulence is caused by changes in the speed or direction of the wind around an airplane, and is a bit like a car driving over bumps in the road. “It can be uncomfortable, but it’s perfectly safe.”
Virgin Atlantic cabin crew member Jennie Jordan says that while passengers can be terrified of turbulence, they have never seen anyone hurt in nearly two decades of flying.
Severe turbulence has increased by 55 percent from 1979 to 2020 and is expected to become more intense, more frequent and longer lasting in the future
“The most important thing is to buckle up and stay seated when the ‘fasten your seatbelt’ signs go mid-flight,” she says. “Other crew members tripped and fell passengers in the aisle during a bumpy spot. Something more serious is incredibly rare.’
WHEN DOES TURBULENCE COME?
Pilots say there are two main types of turbulence. The former is caused by high winds near the ground and storms in low clouds, so it tends to strike in the first and last 30 minutes of a flight.
The second is “clear sky” turbulence above the clouds, when high-level winds change speed without warning. While it can happen at any time, it is most common over mountain ranges and oceans such as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The skies over the Atlantic are getting wilder as the jet stream moves, likely due to climate change. So major vacation routes to America, Canada and the Caribbean could get bumpier.
In Europe, flights over the Alps can be rocky with routes to Switzerland and Austria having the most turbulence.
Long-haul routes, including London to Johannesburg and Durban, can be bumpy, while the skies over Japan are notoriously bumpy. Fly to Australia and you’re all the way down under turbulence free, but expect bumps on the final legs to Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne.
It is rare for short haul flights to Europe to experience more than a brief period of mild turbulence. Meteorologists inform pilots of bad weather in advance, allowing planes to reroute and avoid the worst.
Passengers can get their own predictions on websites such as turbli.com. It scans the skies for up to 36 hours for flights, looks for thunderstorm forecasts, predicts whether takeoffs and landings will be smooth, and whether turbulence will be light, moderate or strong.
The skies over the Atlantic are getting wilder as the jet stream moves, likely due to climate change
Pilots say landing anywhere near the equator can be tricky because wind speeds change quickly and storms erupt suddenly.
Holiday airports like Miami, Orlando and Cancun can be bumpy, as can Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. Strong winds mean Madeira airport is a pain for pilots, with planes often diverting to the nearby island of Porto Santo until the weather improves.
Hearts can beat faster at Gibraltar airport (the sea looms at each end of the runway and pilots have to brake quickly), while high winds can rock planes near the Canary Islands.
The final approach to Athens airport is also notorious for bumpy skies.
BEST PLACE TO SIT
Frequent fliers say seats in the middle of an airplane promise the smoothest flight and those at the back are the bumpiest. But experts say the difference is so small it goes unnoticed, especially on large planes like Boeing’s Dreamliner or the Airbus A380 biplane.
Some say window seats (and even the dreaded center seat) can be safer on bumpy flights. That’s because items in the overhead lockers can move during the flight and fall out, causing injury – often for those in aisle seats below. Cabin crew say metal water bottles falling out of lockers are one of the leading causes of in-flight accidents.
Thunderstorms in the sky can be terrifying, especially when lightning flashes outside the cabin windows. But airplanes are designed to avert storms. When hit, the electricity passes through the exterior of the aircraft without affecting the interior. Most aircraft are hit at least once a year with no ill effects
BEST TIME TO FLY
Turbulence can strike at any time, but weather experts say flights can be smoothest at night and in the early morning.
Meteorologists say changes in air temperature are less extreme after the sun sets, and thunderstorms are more likely to erupt at the end of the day than at the beginning.
Pilots try to avoid it. Pre-departure weather forecasts and mid-flight updates show where stormy skies lie with routes and altitudes chosen accordingly. Planes further down the same route give tips back to air traffic control for those following.
The amount of time flying through bumps can also be reduced, as turbulence tends to occur in long, shallow layers of air only 100 meters deep. Moving above or below the layers can bring planes back into smoother air.
AIR BAGS A DANGER?
No, because those don’t really exist. The term was coined to describe the feeling of planes crashing suddenly during turbulent flight. In reality, pilots say there are no “air pockets” to fall through and, as dramatic as the shocks may feel, planes rarely lose more than a few feet of altitude in turbulent air.
Thunderstorms in the sky can be terrifying, especially when lightning flashes outside the cabin windows. But airplanes are designed to avert storms.
When hit, the electricity passes through the exterior of the aircraft without affecting the interior. Most aircraft are hit at least once a year with no ill effects.
The only time thunderstorms cause major problems is when they cluster around airports. At that point, air traffic control may restrict landings and takeoffs, causing delays and cancellations.
CABIN CREW CODE
When the seatbelt signs go off mid-flight, cabin crew have to interrupt from other duties to make sure everyone is buckled up. That includes waking up sleeping passengers if the crew can’t see their seatbelts and checking that babies are out of cots and strapped to parents.
If the fasten seat belt signs remain lit for a long time, the crew can continue to serve meals, although they are not allowed to pour hot drinks.
But if you hear the announcement in the middle of a flight: “Cabin crew, take your seat,” then flight attendants should also tie themselves. It’s rare, but means a bad patch is ahead.