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Here's what causes airplane turbulence — and how to stay safe on a rough flight

Climate change's impact on flight turbulence
How climate change is making flight turbulence worse 05:19

Several recent incidents have highlighted an unpleasant experience some end up having on airplanes: turbulence. And these kinds of incidents might be getting more common, a union representing flight attendants is warning — thanks to climate change. 

Multiple people were hospitalized in early March after a Lufthansa flight routing from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany, was forced to make an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport in Virginia due to turbulence. 

The flight, which carried 172 passengers and 12 crew members, according to Lufthansa, was diverted and eventually landed at Dulles around 9 p.m. EST on Wednesday night. The decision came as the plane experienced "severe turbulence" while flying over Tennessee, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement to CBS News. Seven people were transported to local hospitals, Dulles airport said. The FAA is investigating.

A similar incident occurred just one day later, when around 20 passengers and crew members on board a Condor flight from Frankfurt to Mauritius were injured because of turbulence, the German news agency DPA reported. The plane hit a patch of turbulence about two hours before landing, an airline spokesperson said, according to DPA. The extent of their injuries was not immediately clear, but the plane, carrying 272 passengers and 13 crew members, eventually landed safely near Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, the news agency reported.

Then, on March 3, one person was killed when a Bombardier CL30 jet headed from Dillant-Hopkins Airport in New Hampshire to Leesburg Executive Airport in Virginia encountered severe turbulence and was forced to divert to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. 

Additional reports of passenger and crew injuries caused by airplane turbulence raised concerns on several occasions last year. In December, 36 people were hurt — 20 of them were hospitalized, with 11 suffering serious injuries — when a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu experienced "severe turbulence," officials said.

Eight people were hospitalized in July after an American Airlines flight from Tampa, Florida, to Nashville, Tennessee, experienced severe "unexpected turbulence" and was forced to land in Alabama, a spokesperson for Birmingham's airport told CBS News. 

The incident came weeks after three Southwest Airlines flight attendants and one passenger on a flight from Chicago to Salt Lake City suffered minor injuries after their flight experienced "moderate turbulence."

The FAA tracks injuries to airline passengers and crew members due to turbulence during flights. Annual statistics published by the agency show that total injuries ranged from five to 18 per year between 2009 and 2019, although double-digit totals were recorded a majority of the time. Injury reports dropped after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the FAA recording five total injuries due to turbulence in 2020 and six total injuries in 2021. 

CBS News contacted the agency for more recent data on flight turbulence and related injuries, but the FAA declined to share statistics beyond what is already published on its website at this time.

What is turbulence, and when does it happen?

Turbulence, which causes planes to suddenly jolt while in flight, is considered a fairly normal occurrence and nothing to fear. The movement is caused by "atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts, or thunderstorms," according to The Federal Aviation Administration

"Severe weather increases chances of turbulence, and due to climate change, these kinds of incidents will only continue to grow," Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, told CBS News. 

Garland said that the instances of turbulence that led to injuries this summer may have been weather related. 

"The summer months are normally very weather prone, with thunderstorms, and so aviation is affected by weather," she said. "So while it's typical, most turbulence is not something to be concerned about."

How to keep safe on board

But if caught unprepared, the sudden jolt caused by turbulence can lead to injuries to passengers and crew members who are not buckled in, the FAA warned. 

In an effort to reduce injuries caused by turbulence, the FAA has pushed new safety measures to reduce the likelihood of commercial airlines experiencing turbulence, such as encouraging pilots to file more reports and working to modernize the Pilot Report System where pilots communicate weather conditions, the agency said. 

In addition, the FAA said they are working with air carriers to get passengers to follow seatbelt instructions from crew members by making more frequent announcements during bouts of turbulence or through video presentations, as well as working with air carriers to design training programs help prevent flight attendants from sustaining turbulence-related injuries.

Garland says passengers' best bet is to follow crew instructions as well as buckling up.

"We would recommend listening to flight attendants and pilots," she told CBS News."That seatbelt sign comes on for a reason. You should not be up or going to the bathroom. That sign is on for your safety, but some passengers may think 'Oh, I'll be fine,' but with turbulence, you can injure yourself and other people around you."

"Take that seatbelt sign seriously, anytime it is on you should be seated and with your seatbelt on," Garland said. 

Garland also said some procedural changes could also help. 

"Two things: Increasing time seated before landing, and giving flight attendants the ability to secure the cabin and discontinue service in anticipation for turbulence — that could help limit turbulence-related injuries."

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