Serious personal injury from airliner turbulence on the rise

On August 11, 2016, a Jet Blue fight out of Boston experienced violent turbulence, with two dozen passengers suffering serious personal injury.

Sacramento residents, hoping to make it home on time, were witnesses to something out of a disaster film. Passengers were lifted, in some cases thrown, from their seats. Food, drinks, personal items and people struck the ceiling, other seats, and other passengers.

Almost a year later to the day of this incident, three of the Sacramento-bound passengers are suing Jet Blue for the incident. The lawsuits cite the ongoing effects of their individual serious personal injury, and the airliner crew’s apparent disregard for dangerous weather conditions at the time.

A growing concern for passengers and crew alike

Despite the reported rarity of extreme turbulence, scientists are predicting that such incidents will become far more common. In this paper by Paul D. Williams, published in May 2017 in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, changes in our climate are proving to be causes for incidents similar to the Jet Blue flight.

As dramatic as the Jet Blue injuries were, it is far from the only time extreme air turbulence has led to serious personal injury. In 2017, multiple extreme air turbulence events have left dozens injured all over the world.

April: A Qantas flight from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong experienced a “stick shaker” event roughly 100 kilometers from their destination. Pilots managed to regain control of the aircraft and safely land, though 15 passengers needed to be treated for minor injuries.

May: An Aeroflot from Moscow to Bangkok experienced extreme turbulence. After 10 seconds of shaking, there were 27 serious personal injury victims. Common injuries included bone fractures and bleeding skin lacerations.

June: United Airlines Flight 1031 from Panama City to Houston, Texas traveled through 80 miles of turbulent air, leaving 9 passengers and one crew member injured.

What can passengers do to prevent serious personal injury?

Most turbulence is detected by radar, and can be steered around. Additional detection is possible visually, usually in the form of obvious weather systems or clouds. Airliners often plot courses around these disturbances, via use of radar and ground-based air traffic controllers. Flight crew are expected to warn passengers about possible turbulence, and urge them to return to their seats and re-fasten seat belts.

However, many of these incidents occur in clear skies, often with no detectable warnings in advance. And while thousands of flights occur without incident each day, there always exists the possibility of these “clear-air turbulence” events. Experts and airline industry officials stress the importance of wearing safety belts while seated; most victims in these events were not secured to their seats. Because there was little to no warning, many of these serious personal injury victims were unable to protect themselves.

As research continues into changing weather patterns, the safety of airliners will see increased focus. How this will change safety equipment, and operating practices for airlines around the world, remains to be seen.


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