Plane Turbulence Is Frightening, But Is It Really Dangerous?

Turbulence is not inherently dangerous; however, depending on the severity, people can get hurt, especially if they fail to follow the directions being given by the pilot and flight crew.

By Trista Sobeck | Published

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There have been numerous reports of turbulence this year and it seems like they have only increased and climate change is to blame. But aviation experts say that turbulence isn’t dangerous, and you are in a safe environment. The situations that occurred with folks dying from blunt force trauma were freak accidents. Also, those in aviation are quick to point out that those who are hurt, were more than likely not wearing their seatbelts

According to NPR, although over the past week, one person has died from turbulence and about eight people were sent to the hospital, turbulence typically doesn’t do more than cause anxious flyers more worry. It also can cause extreme air sickness. It can also cause damage to the plane and very much differs in severity. 

Injuries from turbulence are indeed rare. At flight cruising levels, only about 3% of the atmosphere has light turbulence, about 1% has moderate turbulence and a few tenths of a percent has severe turbulence at any given time, say experts. Extreme weather does cause it, but sometimes pilots will have no hint that there is going to be a bumpy ride.

Sometimes, turbulence is enough to scare even the most well-seasoned traveler and keep them grounded for good. However rough the ride, you probably won’t get a refund or even travel credits.  So the best thing to do is be prepared and know what to expect.

Turbulence can cause a variety of issues, including delays, cancellations, safety problems, comfort concerns, and even injury. Aircraft have been known to encounter severe turbulence over long distances that can cause structural damage and unsecured items to become airborne. Some experts suggest to continually be aware of what is happening on the plane so you can react if you need to. 

Turbulence is defined as erratic air movement which changes the altitude of the plane.  It can range from small and mild, to large-scale and severe. In some cases, turbulence can become so severe that it will cause the plane to drop hundreds of feet in a few seconds.

Pilots can navigate around jet streams, but when there is severe weather like hurricanes or a  large area of low pressure, turbulence is inevitable. You may not be able to feel it as much when the plane is flying at a higher altitude, but air pockets will still exist at this level.

Pilots cannot see turbulence per se, and only know they are in the middle of it when they fly through it.  They can use their instruments to detect any changes in air pressure, wind speed, and direction.

In order to help passengers stay safe during turbulence, pilots will generally issue a warning before the plane hits an area where it is expected. This gives passengers time to fasten their seat belts or return to their seats if they are not already sitting down.

The best thing folks can do to stay safe is to follow directions from flight staff, keep seatbelts on, and always follow carry-on guidelines. This is really important because if carry-ons are oversized they can hurt folks even more.