What is turbulence?

High in the sky, as you are cruising to your destination, the seat belt sign goes on. As you look out the window, there are no clouds for kilometres. What could you possibly run into at this height? Turbulence – a frequently invisible problem for aircraft.

Turbulence is a weather phenomenon responsible for the abrupt sideways and vertical jolts that passengers often experience during flights, and is the leading cause of in-flight injuries to passengers and cabin crew.

Turbulence is caused by the irregular movement of air, and often cannot be seen. When air masses with different speeds, direction or temperatures meet each other – such as a warm or cold front, a thunderstorm, air flowing over or around mountains, or near jet streams – turbulence is likely to occur.

How serious is turbulence?

While turbulence is normal and occurs frequently, it can be dangerous. Turbulence by its nature is unpredictable – occurring without warning, and ranging from a few minor bumps to a major shake-up.

Aircraft can handle even severe turbulence, and are designed to flex with the bumps and jolts. Turbulence is usually more severe in the cabin than in the cockpit.

Turbulence is rarely a threat to passenger aircraft or to pilot control of the aircraft.

So why do you need to be prepared for turbulence? While your aircraft is designed to take turbulence, your body is not.

In a typical turbulence incident, 99 per cent of people on board receive no injuries.  However, the bumpy ride can cause passengers and cabin crew who are not wearing their seat belts to be thrown around without warning. About 25 in-flight turbulence injuries are reported in Australia each year to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), and many more go unreported. Some of these injuries are serious, and have resulted in broken bones and head injuries.

An ATSB report found that passengers being thrown up and out of their seat during turbulence was the second most common type of head injury on aircraft.

For the five-year period 2009 to 2013, there 677 turbulence occurrences on flights in, to or from Australia that were reported to the ATSB, with 197 minor injuries and 2 serious injuries to passengers and cabin crew. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that the cost to the worldwide aviation industry of turbulence injuries is over US$100 million annually, and growing.

If you travel by air, you need to take turbulence seriously.

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Edition 2
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AR-2008-034 _edition 2
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Staying safe against in-flight turbulence