Turbulent Singapore Airlines flight highlights risks of rough air

Severe turbulence struck London-Singapore flight, injuring passengers and leaving one man dead
Ambulances are seen at the airport where a London-Singapore flight that encountered severe turbulence was diverted to, in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The plane apparently plummeted for a number of minutes before it was diverted to Bangkok, where emergency crews rushed to help injured passengers amid stormy weather, Singapore Airlines said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Ambulances are seen at the airport where a London-Singapore flight that encountered severe turbulence was diverted to, in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The plane apparently plummeted for a number of minutes before it was diverted to Bangkok, where emergency crews rushed to help injured passengers amid stormy weather, Singapore Airlines said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

A Singapore Airlines flight from London hit severe turbulence Monday, injuring some passengers and leaving one man dead — raising concerns about the risks for travelers when flights are violently tossed about in rough air.

The turbulence happened while the Boeing 777 was over the Indian Ocean, The Associated Press reported. The flight diverted to Bangkok, Thailand.

Turbulence-related accidents are the most common type of airline accidents, according to a 2021 National Transportation Safety Board report. More than a third of all airline accidents from 2009 through 2018 were related to turbulence, with most of them resulting in serious injuries.

Delta flight 175

Last August, a Delta Air Lines plane flying into Atlanta encountered severe turbulence, seriously injuring two passengers and two crew members and causing minor injuries for 13 others.

That flight, Delta 175 from Milan to Atlanta on an Airbus A350-900, was descending to land at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on the evening of Aug. 29 with the seat belt sign on, according to a preliminary report from the NTSB.

A pilot notified flight attendants that they may encounter turbulence in about 5 minutes, “and suggested they complete their duties within that time,” according to the report.

But within about 4 minutes, the aircraft encountered severe turbulence.

A passenger posted on social media that people went flying up from their seats when the aircraft suddenly dropped.

About 11 people were taken to the hospital for evaluation.

How to stay safe during turbulence

The Federal Aviation Administration said passengers can prevent injuries from unexpected turbulence “by keeping their seat belt buckled at all times.”

The FAA also recommends listening to instructions from pilots and flight attendants.

With many passengers sleeping or listening to music or watching movies or other videos with headphones on, it can be more difficult to pay attention to warnings and instructions.

But the FAA notes that regulations require passengers to be seated with their seat belts fastened whenever the seat belt sign is illuminated during flight.

And, the FAA recommends using an approved child safety seat or device for children under 2 years old.

Avoiding some turbulence

Some aircraft turbulence is avoidable, particularly when it’s in “well-defined locations, such as over mountain ranges or within the vicinity of convective storms,” according to a study by the U.K’s University of Reading.

Delta has a team of meteorologists at its Atlanta headquarters to monitor weather and create forecasts to send to flight crews, including on turbulence and thunderstorms.

Pilots carry iPads that let them see Delta’s forecasts for turbulence and other hazards, and if there are irregular air patterns that may cause turbulence in an area, they can seek clearance from air traffic control to avoid it.

The FAA said its efforts to combat the effects of turbulence include modernizing its pilot reporting system for pilots to notify others about turbulence and other weather conditions, encouraging pilots to file more reports, and using automation to route planes around weather systems.

Singapore Airlines said it encountered “sudden extreme turbulence” during Monday’s flight. There were rapidly developing thunderstorms near the flight path that likely contributed to the violent turbulence, according to AccuWeather on Tuesday.

Changes in climate affecting turbulence

One type of rough air — known as clear-air turbulence — is difficult to detect and forecast.

Scientists have observed an increase in severe clear-air turbulence over time, according to a study from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, which was published last year.

The study found a 55% increase in the annual duration of severe clear air turbulence from 1979 to 2020 at an average point over the North Atlantic.

Clear-air turbulence is worsened by warmer air from carbon dioxide emissions, which increases wind shear in the jet streams, according to the university.

“Following a decade of research showing that climate change will increase clear-air turbulence in the future, we now have evidence suggesting that the increase has already begun,” said University of Reading professor and atmospheric scientist Paul Williams in a written statement. “We should be investing in improved turbulence forecasting and detection systems, to prevent the rougher air from translating into bumpier flights in the coming decades.”