Why turbulence may be on the rise – and the worst regions for bumpy flights

The latest case of severe turbulence involved a Singapore Airlines plane

At least one person has died and dozens of others have been injured after a flight from London to Singapore encountered severe turbulence. The Singapore Airlines flight was forced to divert to Bangkok after a passenger was killed and 30 people were hurt.

It follows several other high-profile incidents in recent years. Three passengers on a Hawaiian Airlines service to Sydney were hospitalised in June 2023 after the flight experienced severe turbulence. Photos taken by those on board showed broken ceiling panels and dangling oxygen masks.

In March 2023, seven passengers ended up in hospital after their Lufthansa flight from Austin to Frankfurt hit severe turbulence. As the plane plummeted, the actor Matthew McConaughey, who was on board with his wife Camila Alves, reported getting a “hell of a scare”. A widely circulated TikTok video shows trays, food and bedding strewn across the cabin in the aftermath.

In the same month, passengers on a Tui plane heading to Manchester from Tenerife were reportedly offered counselling after it was caught in Storm Larissa and forced to make an emergency landing at East Midlands. And in December 2022, a flight from Phoenix to Hawaii made a hasty descent after six people were seriously injured during another bout of severe turbulence.

Though these incidents are extreme and turbulence-related injuries – let alone deaths – are rare, bumpy rides may be on the rise. According to projections by researchers at Reading University, led by Professor Paul Williams, incidents of clean-air turbulence (sudden, severe turbulence in the absence of clouds or storms) could significantly increase by 2050-2080 due to strengthening wind instabilities and increasing pockets of rough air caused by climate change.

It is feared that climate change is behind a spate of high-profile incidents
It is feared that climate change is behind a spate of high-profile incidents - Getty

This kind of turbulence is undetectable by radar and incidents often “occur out of the blue,” says meteorologist Jim Dale. “And higher altitude turbulence can occur over wide areas and be difficult to avoid and/or negotiate.”

But though turbulence might be increasing, technologies are improving too. An algorithm created by Williams in order to predict turbulence strength up to 18 hours in advance is now among those used by the US National Weather Service in its forecasts and he’s also working with Airbus to make its planes more resilient in the future.

“They’ve been in touch with many questions that we are trying to answer,” he says. “Because of the long lead time in aircraft design life cycles, the aircraft that will be flying in the second half of this century are currently in the design phase. We need to ensure that the capacity to withstand lots more turbulence is built into the design standards.”

Is there any way to avoid turbulence?

For now, some flights are definitely bumpier than others. According to data from turbulence prediction website Turbli, which analysed 150,000 routes, eight of the ten most turbulent of 2022 were internal flights in Japan.

“Turbulence has three main sources,” explains the site’s creator Ignacio Gallego-Marcos. “One is from jet streams, which are like high velocity air flows in the high atmosphere. One is mountain waves, so where you have the Andes or the Rockies they generate turbulence. The other is thunderstorms: these tend to be strongest close to the equator so you can expect some activity there. In the case of Japan, there is high jet stream activity and it’s a mountainous country too.”

Other well-traversed routes can have problems as well. Transatlantic flights are renowned for experiencing bouts of light to moderate turbulence thanks to unpredictable weather over the ocean caused by the strong jet stream. And five of Europe’s most bumpy short-haul flights originate in Zurich according to the Turbli data, possibly because they cross mountain ranges.

To dodge the most unpredictable weather, some experts recommend taking night or early morning flights when the heat of the sun is less likely to affect weather patterns. However, Gallego-Marcos is sceptical. “That would be the case for thunderstorm activity maybe. If you were near the equator during the hot phase, you could expect more thunderstorms. But for jet stream or mountain waves, there’s no recipe.”

What should I do if turbulence hits?

One solution is to choose a plane that deals with bumps better. Gallego-Marcos recommends the Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A340 for less shaky flights. “You have to take the weight divided by the wing area into account – that’s called the ‘wing loading’ and it’s the most important factor,” he says. “The larger the ratio, the smoother the flight.

“Even though big planes like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 weigh a lot, they actually have big wings so it’s easier for turbulence to shake them than the 787 and the A340. The A340 actually has the highest wind loading of all, but the 787 has more advanced systems for dealing with turbulence so that’s my top choice, though it’s hard to choose between them.”

Whichever plane you end up on, opt for a seat where the effects of turbulence are less dramatic. Travelling in the middle of the plane (near the wings and its centre of gravity) ensures a less bumpy ride while a seat at the back will be the most rocky.

Pick your seat: travelling in the middle of the plane ensures a less bumpy ride while a seat at the back will be the most rocky
Pick your seat: travelling in the middle of the plane ensures a less bumpy ride while a seat at the back will be the most rocky - Alamy

“I used to avoid working at the back of the aircraft because that’s the worst,” says Jane Hawkes, who worked as a flight attendant before becoming a consumer champion. “If you are someone who is likely to be concerned by turbulence, speak to the crew when you get on board the plane and see if there’s somewhere they can move you further forward.”

There’s a reason that cabin crew tell passengers to keep seatbelts fastened, too: if turbulence hits without warning, you’re less likely to be injured.

On a similar note and in the wake of last year’s Lufthansa incident, American union AFA (Association of Flight Attendants) renewed its call for a ban on infants on laps, reasoning that the practice is particularly unsafe during severe turbulence and that small children would be better in a safety seat with proper restraints.

Can I claim compensation for turbulence?

You definitely won’t get money just because your flight hits a bumpy patch. However, if you are injured and it can be proved that the airline acted negligently, you might be able to make a personal accident claim.

“If you’re not given enough warning to sit down and strap yourself in then you could be eligible to claim for general and/or special damages under The Montreal Convention if injured as a result,” says Hawkes. “As well as in cases of delay, damage or loss of baggage, The Montreal Convention also establishes airline liability in the case of death or injury to passengers.”

Am I right to be worried?

Try not to be. The National Center for Atmospheric Research says that there are around 5,500 incidents of severe turbulence reported by US pilots every year. That number is less than the flights operated by US carriers every day: 5,670 according to figures from the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority).

If you’re a nervous flyer, Hawkes recommends “asking to see the cockpit [before the flight] and speaking to the flight deck staff. They’ll answer any questions you might have.”

She underlines the training that pilots are given in order to deal with every eventuality. “These are incredibly well-trained professionals. Every six months, they have to go on a flight simulator. They have scenarios involving turbulence and how they manage it. Even doctors aren’t tested as much.”

This article was first published in July 2023 and has been revised and updated