Skip to content

Rising Turbulence Puts Air Travel At Risk

Climate change linked to increased duration of severe turbulence, prompting concerns for passenger safety.

Air travel has made a significant resurgence in the past year, including smashing pre-pandemic passenger records leading up to the Fourth of July holiday. However, as the number of air travel passengers climbs, the skies have become increasingly turbulent.

The increase in turbulence has led to more reports of wings bouncing, drink carts flying and passengers being jolted around. Researchers at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom have raised concerns that the duration of severe turbulence on flights over the North Atlantic has increased by 55 percent over the past four decades. The significant increase has been attributed to climate change, according to University of Reading researcher Isabel Smith.

In March 2023, seven people were hospitalized after a commercial jet experienced turbulence, while one person died in a separate incident that occurred on a business jet, according to to NPR. In December 2022, dozens were injured on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu due to significant turbulence.

A Southwest Airlines plane lands at Long Beach Airport Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Long Beach, Calif. Southwest Airlines says planes are taking off again Tuesday after departures were held up Tuesday because of what the airline calls an intermittent technical problem.

Wizz air HA-LXO – Airbus A321-231 landint at Gdansk airport is seen in Gdansk, Poland on 9 July 2023. The jet stream, which is this fast-flowing band, is getting more chaotic and stronger with global tropospheric warming. PHOTO BY MICHAL FLUDRA/GETTY IMAGES 

A jet stream is essentially an atmospheric highway located at the level where jets cruise. Winds in this high-speed river of air often reach 250 mph. Typically, aircraft flying from west to east will make better time than when flying from east to west. Aircraft flying from west to east often have a jet stream tailwind, as opposed to a jet stream headwind, when flying from east to west.

Pilots tend to utilize the jet stream while flying because the wind contained inside the jet stream can move the airplane quicker to its destination, allowing the pilots to conserve fuel in the process. However, clear-air turbulence is becoming more of a problem for flights in the jet stream.

Moderate: Change in altitude and/or attitude, but the aircraft remains in positive control at all times.

Severe: Large, abrupt changes in altitude and/or attitude. Aircraft may be momentarily out of control.

Extreme: Aircraft is violently tossed about and practically impossible to control. May cause structural damage.

The increase in turbulence may lead to significant changes in the way we travel.

In the long term, airplanes may be built with more advanced technology to detect clear-air turbulence and allow more warning for passengers on board. In the meantime, Smith said simple advice may be the most important to follow: “Keep your seatbelt on as much as possible.”


Produced in association with AccuWeather

“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”

Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.

Check out our free email newsletters

Recommended from our partners