Flight turbulence: What is it and is it getting worse?

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Flight turbulence: What is it and is it getting worse?


When Singapore Airlines passengers were served breakfast on their way to London Heathrow a few months ago, they didn't expect to scrape their eggs off the cabin ceiling before eating them. But when severe air turbulencecaused their flight to drop steeply, everything from scrambled eggs to hand luggage was thrown all over the cabin.

Passenger Alan Clark, who posted images of the chaos on Instagram, told ABC news that the turbulence felt "like being in an elevator with a cut cable or free-falling from some amusement park ride." Twelve people were injured, including one crew member, and passengers said afterwards that they feared for their lives.

So was this just an isolated incident, or is air travel really becoming more turbulent?

A study of transatlantic flights during winter, published in the journal Nature Climate Change earlier this year, suggests that it is.

Using supercomputer simulations of the atmospheric jet stream over the North Atlantic Ocean, scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Reading have predicted that climate change will increase air turbulence.

The research concluded that flights could encounter up to twice as much turbulence while in the air in future. "This research shows that climate change will cause more frequent air turbulence and more bumpy flights in just a few decades," confirms Dr Manoj Joshi from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences.

However, not all industry experts are concerned or convinced by this prognosis.

In a statement, the International Air Transport Association (ATA) said: "Airlines cope with adverse weather conditions every day, so this report... will not change airline procedures. It should be noted that climate modelling is still an area fraught with many uncertainties."

One of the causes for climate change is believed to be the CO2 emissions caused by flying itself. Addressing this fact, the ATA said: "The aviation industry is working towards its target to halve net CO2 emissions by 2050 (compared to 2005) through new technology, more efficient operational techniques and improvements in infrastructure."




But Dr. Andy Jefferson, programme director for Sustainable Aviation argues that whether there will be problems with increased air turbulence cannot be judged at this stage.

"Within sustainable aviation, the whole change in climate and climate events are almost impossible to predict.

"We don't think that the risk of air turbulence is going to get any worse than it has been historically. And the industry is not experiencing that perception from the public. Operators are not getting in touch and saying we're experiencing severe turbulence.

He adds: "You're always going to have some bumps when you're crossing the Atlantic. You've got jet streams blowing you along which help to save a lot of fuel. When you come from America across to the UK, they're actually blowing you across.

"But we certainly don't anticipate that you're going to be thrown around or shaken to bits."

Aircraft design is improving, he adds. "Aeroplane wings flex as you go along: they are designed to absorb these effects. This means there's less and less strain on the aircraft, so they're becoming safer, and effectively stronger.

Dr Jefferson adds that our ability to detect where air turbulence is occurring is also improving.

"Forecasts are becoming more accurate, so when you're in the flight, the aircraft has radars, looking ahead at the weather, and if it looks bumpy and you can actually reroute the aircraft.

"The pilot is also receiving constant updates from data centres on the ground and Air Traffic Control."

Reports of cutting edge laser technology, which could be used to spot invisible patches of swatches of swirling, turbulent air in the future, will also give passengers comfort.

In a statement, Virgin Atlantic said: "Due to advances in technology incidents of unexpected turbulence are becoming less frequent."

"Virgin Atlantic invests heavily in software and equipment on the ground and onboard our aircraft to detect, avoid and mitigate turbulence.

"Our pilots are trained to deal with turbulence events that may occur. The captain will always keep passengers informed of expected flying conditions and where possible will avoid areas of turbulence."



Singapore Airline Flight's Turbulent Breakfast
















If you're one of those passengers who really hate turbulence, there are certain steps you can take to minimise its effects. For example, those who are find air turbulence particularly frightening should request a seat that is towards the middle of the aeroplane, suggests clinical hypnotherapist David Samson.

"The sensations of turbulence are usually much greater towards the rear of the plane. The best place to sit for a smoother ride is close to the centre of the plane by the wings.

During turbulence it is really important to try to relax and release muscle tension, he adds.

"When the body is rigid, you feel every bump, a bit like driving down a country lane in a low slung sports car that has sports suspension."

You can also take assurance from Captain Sully Sullenberger, pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 which famously landed in the Hudson River after a bird strike in 2009. In a video created to help people who suffer from fear of flying, he says: "Planes are designed, engineered, built and maintained to handle the worst turbulence plus a margin of 50 per cent. Pilots are trained to avoid turbulence when they can and to manage it by changing speed, and the cabin crew are trained in keeping you safe. So you're in good hands, and you're much, much safer in a plane than in a car."


Here are two exercises you can try when fear kicks in...

Muscle tension then relaxation
Tense and relax your muscles from the feet up to your head, moving gradually and taking each limb. The purpose of this exercise is to distract the conscious mind from the movement and relax your muscles.

Imagination exercises
Visualise positive imagery, such as lying on the beach, to distract yourself from the situation.




15 flights from hell

15 flights from hell


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