Published on Wednesday, April 10, 2013
A report published this week that claims flights on transatlantic routes could experience up to 40% more turbulence over the next 40 years due to climate change has led to wild claims that fierce winds can bring down planes, frightening air passengers.
TravelMole's associate editor Linsey McNeill asked aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the British Airline Pilots Association if turbulence does ever endanger passengers.
Boeing said that turbulence rarely causes any serious problems and passengers should be safe as long as they remain seated and buckled up. Aircraft are built to withstand a 2.5g force load without even any minor damage and, as it is rare for a storm to generate a force that exceeds 1g load on an aircraft, there is no risk.
Some storms are severe enough to toss the plane about and passengers worry that pilots won't be able to guide an airplane if they're being thrown round the cockpit like sacks of potatoes, but in reality, the're strapped into their seats in harnesses similar to those worn by fighter pilots, so there's no real danger of them losing control.
Most of the injuries caused during turbulence, said Boeing, are as a result of items onboard the aircraft, such as drink carts not being secured and it's the crew who are most likely to sustain an injury from flying objects as they are standing most of the time.
However, turbulence can make some passengers quite sick, so, why don't aircraft fly around it? The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) said the answer is quite simple: often pilots don't know it's there.
Unfortunately air traffic control, with their secondary radar, can' see the thunderstorms that cause the most severe turbulence and, indeed, they have no indication of turbulent areas other than pilot reports,said BALPA spokesman Richard Toomer.
If pilots are aware they are heading into a storm, they will try to re-route where possible, he said. Indeed, most airlines require pilots to avoid turbulence if they can, said Boeing, and it is considered common courtesy for pilots to warn other pilots about rough patches and to tell them if they've found clear air.
The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States advises pilots to avoid thunderstorms by at least 20 miles as small pockets of rough air can develop quite quickly well outside the most intense areas of a storm, but some storms are just too big to fly around.
Also, when flying in controlled airspace, aircraft are required to fly along a certain path (just like a highway). Although pilots can request minor deviations from the path, this might not be possible if the airspace is very crowded.
Pilots are not able to detect clear-air turbulence, which is caused by the jet stream or by wind flowing over mountains, which is why passengers sometimes receive a sudden jolt without any warning, before the crew have had chance to switch on the seat- belt signs.
To ensure the most comfortable ride, it's best to fly on the largest, most modern aircraft as these are designed to lessen the impact of turbulence on passengers.
Boeing's engineering team in Seattle said the 787 Dreamliner, currently grounded for technical reasons (read the latest updated here) is equipped with a system that reads the air in front and compensates for impending turbulence to ensure a smoother ride.
Parts of this article were published in January 2013 in First Class, a magazine for members
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