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Is turbulence on airplane flights getting worse?

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“As long as the temperature continues to get warmer, we’re going to see more turbulence. The two are directly correlated,” an aviation expert told VERIFY.

Summer travel can certainly have its share of bumps, including in the skies when airplanes encounter a sudden, chaotic shift in airflow known as turbulence.

Multiple social media posts claim instances of turbulence are increasing on flights, and many of the posts suggest climate change is to blame.

Recent online search trends show many people are wondering if this is true.

THE QUESTION

Is turbulence increasing on airline flights?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, turbulence is increasing on airline flights.

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WHAT WE FOUND

Incidents of turbulence on airline flights have increased by more than 50% within the past 40 years. Multiple studies suggest climate change is to blame for the increase in turbulence, while other researchers say additional factors, such as a rise in overall air traffic, could be at play.

“We are seeing some more severe cases, and that really is an outcome of a warming planet,” said Shem Malmquist, an airline captain and instructor at Florida Tech’s College of Aeronautics.

Turbulence is an irregular motion of the air resulting from eddies (circular currents or whirls of air) and vertical currents, according to the National Weather Service. The most dangerous type is clear-air turbulence, which often occurs with no visible warning in the sky ahead.

There are many causes of turbulence, but it is typically associated with different weather conditions, such as cold or warm fronts, thunderstorms or wind shear, which is the change in wind direction and/or wind speed over a specific horizontal or vertical distance.

A 2023 study published by scientists at the University of Reading found the total annual duration of severe clear-air turbulence increased by 55% from 1979 to 2020 at a typical point over the North Atlantic, which is one of the world’s busiest flight routes.

Moderate turbulence on this flight route increased by 37% from 70 hours to 96.1 hours, and light turbulence increased by 17% from 466.5 hours to 546.8 hours, according to the study.

The study also found that other busy flight routes over the United States, Europe, the Middle East and the South Atlantic also saw significant increases in turbulence.

The scientists, who analyzed 40 years of high-quality atmospheric data to conduct the study, say they have evidence based on previous research that suggests turbulence is likely to get worse in the future because of climate change.

“As long as the temperature continues to get warmer — which of course, every single month, we’re setting a new record, now — we’re going to see more turbulence. The two are directly correlated,” Malmquist told VERIFY.

Meanwhile, other researchers suggest additional factors could also be at play.

Larry Cornman, a physicist and project scientist at the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Atmospheric Research who has long studied turbulence, told the Associated Press there could be a rise in overall air traffic — which may increase turbulence encounters as the number of flight tracks, including those in areas of more turbulence, goes up.

Tracking the total number of turbulence-related injuries around the world is difficult. However, some countries, including the U.S., publish national data.

In 2021, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that more than one-third of all airline incidents in the U.S. from 2009 through 2018 were related to turbulence, and most of them resulted in one or more serious injuries but no damage to the plane.

NTSB data also found that between 2009 and 2022, 163 people were injured seriously enough during turbulence events to require hospital treatment for at least two days. Most of them were flight attendants, who are particularly at risk since they are more likely to be out of their seats during a flight.

“It’s not uncommon to have turbulence encounters that cause minor injuries up to, say, a broken bone,” said Cornman. “But fatalities are very, very rare — especially for large transport aircraft.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shares tips on what passengers can do to avoid injuries from unexpected turbulence on its website. Those tips include:

  • Keep your seat belt buckled at all times. FAA regulations require passengers to be seated with their seat belts fastened:
    • When the airplane leaves the gate and as it climbs after takeoff
    • During landing and taxi
    • Whenever the seat belt sign is illuminated during flight
  • Listen to the pilots and flight attendants.
  • Pay attention to the safety briefing at the beginning of your flight and read the safety briefing card.
  • Buckle children up. The safest place for kids under the age of two is in a government-approved child seat or child harness device.
  • Adhere to your airline’s carry-on restrictions.

“What people need to do is really make sure they keep that seatbelt buckled when they are sitting in their seat and also to try to minimize the times that they’re getting up,” Malmquist added.

VERIFY reached out to all of the major U.S. airlines, including Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska, for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

The VERIFY team works to separate fact from fiction so that you can understand what is true and false. Please consider subscribing to our daily newsletter, text alerts and our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Learn More »

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