There are a very small number of people who say they enjoy turbulence. For the rest of us, being uncomfortably jolted around the aircraft is less than desirable and leads to white knuckles and sweaty palms.
But rest assured – planes are built to withstand extremely rough turbulence, so it’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Understanding a little bit more about what exactly causes turbulence may help.
To put it simply, turbulence occurs when an aircraft encounters an irregular movement of air, when different pressures or streams of air collide. This can be caused by thunderstorms, warm or cold fronts, and jet streams, for example.
Most of the time, the pilot will know when turbulence is going to occur and can forewarn the crew and passengers by putting on the seatbelt sign. The plane is not going to go down in turbulence, but passengers are at risk of injury inside the aircraft from being thrown around. If the seatbelt sign switches on, make sure you’re buckled up and you’ll be fine.
However, there are times when the pilot can’t foresee unexpected turbulence, as was the case for this Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok earlier this year:
Just a couple of months after, a United flight from Panama City to Houston similarly encountered unexpected turbulence, injuring 9 passengers and 1 crew member.
Events such as these are caused by clear-air turbulence (CAT). And unfortunately, there are no visual indicators at all. According to a statement published by Aeroflot after the incident, there are around 750 cases of CAT recorded every year.
CAT differs from regular turbulence in that it’s simply caused when bodies of air collide at different speeds, and is therefore invisible. And, according to a study conducted by scientists at the University of Reading, CAT is on the rise as a result of climate change as the atmosphere becomes more and more unstable.
With all of this in mind, our advice is to always ensure your seatbelt is fastened whenever you’re seated. When the seatbelt sign is turned off, it’s not an invitation to unbuckle for the rest of the journey – it’s merely an indicator that you are allowed to move around the cabin if you need to (for example, to go to the bathroom).
You wouldn’t unfasten your seatbelt in a car as soon as you’re off the bumpy roads, so why do it on board an aircraft? Buckle up and stay safe!