Climate Change Turbulence Stalks Record Holiday Air Travel

The data are conclusive – but don’t let it keep you from flying.

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Airlines bracing for the crush of holiday travelers taking to the skies this December are also dealing with another problem – a sharp uptick in turbulence during flights caused by climate change.

This year, AAA forecasts a record 7.5 million people will travel by air for the holidays, outstripping the record number of flyers in 2019, just before the pandemic hit. Yet even frequent flyers are increasingly expressing reservations about flying, with incidents of extreme turbulence recently making headlines and passengers getting injured or hospitalized. 

During the last holiday season, a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu resulted in 36 people being injured, requiring medical treatment. And in March, a Lufthansa flight from Austin to Frankfurt needed to be diverted to Washington Dulles airport after severe turbulence caused the flight to abruptly drop at least 300 feet, with seven passengers taken to the hospital for minor injuries. 

People on that flight reported afterward that the plane “seemed to be in free fall for five seconds and that plates, glasses and food from the dinner flew up to the ceiling and then crashed down throughout the cabin,” according to an account in New York Magazine.

Some passengers have even filmed their in-flight turbulence experiences, with one video making the rounds on social media showing a flight out of Honolulu where seats appeared to nearly go horizontal. The video was captioned: “Free roller coaster ride on Southwest last night…Pilot and crew were great! Passengers deserve an Oscar for the best performance in a disaster film.”  

The National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation this year into an incident in March in which a White House official, Dana Hyde, died due to blunt trauma during turbulence on a corporate jet that made an emergency landing in Connecticut.

This may explain, in part, why more than 100 million holiday travelers will be taking to the roads – and not the skies – during the December 2023 holiday season, marking the second-busiest holiday driving season on record since 2019, according to AAA. 

Even so, it is extremely rare for turbulence to be life-threatening or result in anything but glancing injuries, with data showing 146 passengers and crew injured by turbulence in the U.S. between 2009 and 2021, but no deaths reported. 

And it is even rarer for turbulence to cause a plane crash, as modern aircraft are designed to withstand even the most severe winds and weather conditions. (If you want to get extra-geeky about it, there is plenty of information about this to be found in the nether regions of the internet.) 

Luca Zerbini, chief executive of Una Terra, a Luxembourg-based venture capital fund focused on sustainable investing to combat and mitigate the effects of climate change, says he flies dozens of times a year for work and has noticed a marked increase in turbulence. “It is definitely happening – and more than in the past,” he tells Power Corridor. “I am noticing pilots changing flight patterns more to avoid specific areas on both long-haul and shorter flights. I think it’s something we’re going to have to learn to live with and, because it’s climate change, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

Another Wall Street frequent flyer – who describes himself as very wary of in-flight turbulence – says he isn’t necessarily noticing more of it, but is seeing pilots wearing their seat belts throughout flights more than in the past and alerting passengers to do the same. 

Zerbini says sometimes he is startled by turbulence and generally cannot sleep on flights anymore due to the interruptions, but uses noise-canceling headphones to try and tune it out. “I do feel scared sometimes, but I think that is nothing to be ashamed about,” he says.

While some travelers are more jittery than others, the notion that serious turbulence is only in our heads was thoroughly debunked this year in a study from the UK’s University of Reading. Scientists and researchers there found that extreme turbulence rose 55 percent between 1979 and 2020 along one well-trafficked North Atlantic route.

The primary reason? Changes in wind speed at higher altitudes caused by warmer air from carbon emissions. “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 Paul Williams, co-author of the study and an atmospheric scientist at the university. “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.”

There are some great explanations for what “clear-air turbulence” is and how it works, but to keep it succinct, it is the region above the atmospheric boundary layer that makes up the free atmosphere, where friction generally drops, but can be disrupted by weather fronts, cumulus convection and gravity waves.

Overall, flight routes in the U.S. and North Atlantic showed the biggest surges in clear-air turbulence – which is hard to detect by satellite or radar – with rising turbulence also seen across Europe, the Middle East and the South Atlantic, according to the data.

Heightened turbulence is down to greater differences in wind speed, or “wind shear,” in the jet stream, with stronger winds blowing from west to east approximately five to seven miles above the Earth’s surface, generated by differences in temperature between the world’s equator and poles, according to the University of Reading’s Williams.

In particular, turbulence seems to be at its worst during precipitous temperature changes across regions or continents, notes Una Terra’s Zerbini. “When I went to COP28 in Dubai this year, there was a lot of turbulence as we entered into the more humid areas of the Middle East,” he says. He’s also noticing the same when crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

All that said, there is good news: Even with turbulence on the upswing, Williams says he does not believe it is a reason not to fly. 

“Nobody should stop flying because they’re afraid of turbulence,” he says. “But it is sensible to keep your seat belt fastened all the time, unless you’re moving around, which is what the pilots do. That is almost a guarantee that you will be safe even in the worst turbulence.”