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21 February 2014

Advice on how to prevent injuries from inflight turbulence

Turbulence happens on just about every flight, but most of the time the amount of turbulence is very small, and the level of risk is very low. Two turbulence events that happened earlier this week, one involving a Cathay Pacific 747 and the second a United Airlines 737 both led to injuries, and also received quite a bit of media attention.

These two events served as a reminder reminders of just how serious students can be, and the need for passengers to be aware of the potential danger.The following insights and advice should keep you from becoming one of those statistics.

Airline turbulence basics
You can experience turbulence for many reasons, typically due to weather conditions such as thunderstorms. Severe turbulence can happen in any phase of flight, but it's most likely to be hazardous during cruise when passengers and crew may be out of their seats and not belted in. In most cases a passenger experiencing turbulence will feel nothing more than a slight vibration. At the other extreme are those rare events that are severe enough to throw passengers around the cabin.

What causes turbulence?
Turbulence is air movement that normally cannot be seen. While it may sometimes be associated with weather conditions like thunderstorms, it can also happen in the following situations, which could happen even on a clear day.

  1. Thermals - Heat from the sun makes warm air masses rise and cold ones fall.
  2. Jet streams - Fast, high-altitude air currents shift, disturbing the air nearby.
  3. Mountains - Air passing over mountains can lead to turbulence as the air mixes above the air mass on the other downwind side.
  4. Wake turbulence - If an aircraft travels too close to another aircraft, the trailing aircraft may pass through an area of chaotic air currents caused by the lead aircraft.

How bad can it get?
Turbulence effects can range from the barely noticeable to the potentially dangerous. What you may feel can range from feeling a slight strain against your seat belts, to being forced violently against your seat belts, and having unsecured items (including yourself if you are unbuckled) being being tossed about the cabin.

Reducing your risks from turbulence
When the flight crew expects turbulence, they will work with the cabin crew to make sure that passengers are in their seats and belted in, and that serving carts and other loose items are properly secured. Even when turbulence is not expected, you should take a few basics steps before and during the flight to ensure your safety:

  • Follow the instructions of the crew - If the crew suggests that passengers return to their seats, do so as soon as you can.
  • Wear your seat belt at all times - Turbulence events can happen even during a smooth flight on a cloudless day. Turbulence is not always predictable and may arrive without warning.
  • Be aware of your overhead bin - If you are sitting under an overhead bin, make sure that the door is properly closed. Also, avoid sitting under a bin that is heavily packed or that contains one or more heavy items. If you can, move to a seat that is not directly under a bin.

Turbulence injuries on a United flight out of Denver - 18 Feburary 2014 turbulence information
Passengers killed by turbulence
FAA turbulence information
How to measure turbulence while you fly
Using child restraints on aircraft
Airline pilot Patrick Smith weighs in on turbulence

Photo credit: Civil Aviation Safety Authority of Australia


  1. Good advice. At least two of the three fatalities caused by turbulence in the USA since 1980 weren't wearing seatbelts at the time. source...

    So the best tip is to wear the seatbelt at all times. It's your protection against "clear air turbulence" which can happen at any time.

    I have a book on overcoming fear of turbulence for anyone interested...

    Neil Shearing, Ph.D.

  2. Simple.. I always fly with the seat belt fastened... Just loosen it off a bit after take-off. Never had any problems .