Turbulence

Monday, December 19, 2022

What is turbulence?

Turbulence is air movement created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms. It can be unexpected and can happen when the sky appears to be clear. Turbulence can give an airplane a sudden jolt that can injure passengers and flight crewmembers who aren't buckled in. 

What should passengers do to avoid injuries?

Passengers can easily prevent injuries from unexpected turbulence by keeping their seat belt buckled at all times. The FAA’s tips for staying safe:

  • Listen to the pilots and flight attendants — FAA regulations require passengers to be seated with their seat belts fastened whenever the seat belt sign is illuminated during flight.
  • Pay attention to the safety briefing at the beginning of your flight and read the safety briefing card.
  • Use an approved child safety seat or device if your child is under two.
  • Prevent inflight injuries by adhering to your airline’s carry-on restrictions.

How is the FAA helping airlines avoid turbulence and prevent injuries?

The FAA has a long history of working to prevent turbulence injuries. 

The agency developed guidance to help airlines avoid the conditions that cause turbulence and minimize the risks when airplanes do encounter it. Some of the material was based upon investigative work from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA also encourages airlines to use operating procedures and training to prevent turbulence injuries, prioritize flight attendants’ personal safety, and gather data and review the air carrier’s history of turbulence encounters and injuries. 

What actions is the FAA taking?

  • Improved data collection and sharing
  • Modernizing the Pilot Report System (PIREPS) where pilots communicate weather conditions, including turbulence.
  • Improving automation to enable pilots and air traffic controllers to digitally enter and share reports, rather than having to do so verbally.
  • Encouraging pilots to file more reports.
  • Using more data in dispatching
    • Training for air traffic controllers about the importance of soliciting and disseminating PIREPs.
    • Using automation and data displays to route aircraft around weather systems.
    • Promoting real-time information sharing between pilot and dispatcher, and including turbulence in weather briefings.

Part 121 Serious Turbulence Injuries 2009 to 2021

Year Passenger Crew Total
2009 10 8 18
2010 2 10 12
2011 3 15 18
2012 2 12 14
2013 1 4 5
2014 0 6 6
2015 3 10 13
2016 2 11 13
2017 1 12 13
2018 3 7 10
2019 2 11 13
2020 0 5 5
2021 1 5 6
Total 30 116 146

Source: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB requires airlines to report serious injuries and fatalities.  A serious injury is “any injury that (1) requires the individual to be hospitalized for more than 48 hours, commencing within seven days from the date the injury was received; (2) results in a fracture of any bone (except simple fractures of fingers, toes, or nose); (3) causes severe hemorrhages, nerve, muscle, or tendon damage; (4) involves any internal organ; or (5) involves second-or third-degree burns, or any burns affecting more than five percent of the body surface.” The FAA tracks these reports, but not general incidents of turbulence.

Additional reading:

Advisory Circular 120-88A Preventing Injuries Caused by Turbulence

Advisory Circular 00-30C Atmospheric Turbulence Avoidance

Airplane Upset Recovery Training Aid

Computer Simulation of an Aircraft Cabin