How Do Airplanes Handle Turbulence?

Commercial air travel is undoubtedly the safest method of long-distance travel. Statistics show that more than 3,200 people in the United States are killed in automobile accidents every year, and an additional 20 to 50 million are injured. In comparison, 2017 marks the eight consecutive year in which no crash fatalities have occurred in commercial airlines.

But there are still risks associated with flying, the most common being turbulence. Also known as clear-air-turbulence (CAT), turbulence is defined as the rapid movement of air masses without any visual signs (e.g. clouds). It occurs when bodies of air moving at different speeds converge together. The differential speeds of the two or more air bodies essentially creates “rough” patches of air. And when airplanes travel through turbulence such as this, it often results in a bumpy ride for passengers. So, how exactly do airplanes handle turbulence?

Weather Briefings

One of the ways in which airplanes handle turbulence is through weather briefings. Commercial airlines have high-tech weather reporting solutions to identify turbulent air. When turbulence is discovered, it’s relayed to air traffic control so that other airplanes can be warned. In doing so, other airplanes can choose alternate routes to avoid the turbulence.

Personnel Safety

Airlines are encouraged to use operating procedures, training and other methods to prevent turbulence injuries for both passengers and flight attendants. When possible, airlines will travel around the turbulent air — but this isn’t always an option. When forced to travel through it, airlines should provide guidance to both passengers and flight attendants to minimize the risk of injury.

Injury Reporting

As with other occupations, injury reporting is essential in the aviation industry to improve safety and protect against future injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) actually requires all airlines in the United States to report injuries and fatalities, including those associated with turbulence. It’s important to note that the NTSB doesn’t track specific instances of turbulence. Instead, it tracks reports of all injuries and fatalities that occur in flight, which may or may not be associated with turbulence.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also recommends that passengers take the follow precautions to reduce the risk of injury when flying in turbulent air:

  • Listen to the flight attendants and obey their instructions.
  • Stay buckled in seat.
  • Read the safety briefing card.
  • Use a child safety seat for children under the age of two.
  • Comply with the airline’s carry-on luggage restrictions.