“This is the group I will meet my fate with”: an anxious air traveler discusses the unsettling increase in turbulence.
On Friday, February 24, 2023, I took an afternoon flight from Charleston, South Carolina to New York’s LaGuardia airport with my children and a friend. In recent years, I have developed a habit of checking for high winds before flying, and unfortunately, there were strong winds on this day. The captain announced that once we descended below 10,000 feet, the flight attendants would need to remain seated due to “a few bumps” and “moderate turbulence”. While I tried to convince myself that “a few bumps” sounded somewhat cute and harmless, the term “moderate turbulence” did not provide much reassurance. In the language of the airline industry, “moderate” is known to mean quite unpleasant for those who are afraid of flying.
Approximately 45 minutes prior to our scheduled landing, a flight attendant makes an announcement over the address system. They inform us that due to anticipated severe turbulence, it is necessary for all passengers to ensure their seatbelts are fastened and their bags are fully stowed under the seats in front of them. They also advise anyone needing to use the restroom to do so immediately. After a brief pause, the attendant adds, “This is going to be a bumpy ride, folks.” I turn to my friend in disbelief. It’s surreal – we’re actually experiencing this. We may not make it out alive.
For those of you who are not afraid of flying, I will guide you through what happens next: panic, perspiration, and difficulty breathing. A pounding in the chest and ears. It feels as though a vital part of me that is normally secure becomes loose and moves around inside me like mercury. I examine the flight attendants for any signs of worry. I look at my children, who are playing Battleship on the in-flight entertainment and remind them to put on their sweatshirts (to protect them in case of a crash). Briefly, I think about the sex toys in my home office drawer that someone – who knows who? – will have to get rid of after I die, and briefly lose focus as I realize that fear of embarrassment is more powerful than fear of death.
I observe the individuals surrounding me: a young woman wearing a grey hoodie, hunched over her phone; a man watching CNBC. On the other side, a well-dressed woman is entering data into her laptop, disregarding the advisory to return her tray table to its upright position. If the tray table suddenly flies up and embeds itself in her head, she will be killed by her own spreadsheet.
In my opinion, these are the individuals I will spend my last moments with.
Finally, my mind snags on the thought I have every single time this happens to me on a flight, which, at the moment, seems to be every time I fly: I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe that after all this life, all this effort, all this striving to make things work and get my taxes in on time, and find the right school, and come up with ideas and execute them, and read 10,000-word pieces about the implications of market saturation on TV streaming services, and save for college, and save for retirement, and build a life and sustain it, that this – Whoa, first big bump, there are a couple of yelps and one plucky, “Woo!” – is how it’s going to end: with the bad Game of Thrones reboot in my peripheral vision as we make our initial descent over Delaware.
The severity of turbulence is increasing. This is both the official statement and one that is supported by personal accounts. In March, a flight operated by Lufthansa from Texas to Germany made an unscheduled stop at Dulles airport in Washington DC due to turbulence that resulted in injuries for seven passengers. In December of last year, a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu experienced such severe turbulence that 20 individuals had to be hospitalized. In July, another Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Sydney encountered turbulence that caused injuries to seven passengers. In August, a Delta flight on its way to Atlanta experienced turbulence during its descent, resulting in 11 individuals being hospitalized. The injuries included cuts, head injuries, broken bones, and loss of consciousness, primarily among those who were not wearing their seatbelts.
It can be challenging to accurately predict turbulence, and there is limited data on the number of injuries caused by it. The Federal Aviation Administration relies on airlines to report significant injuries, and the average is 58 per year. This number is minimal compared to the 853 million passengers carried by US airlines in 2022. Despite this, recent headlines have been alarmist, questioning why turbulence appears to be increasing and linking it to the planet’s warming. However, these claims may be exaggerated, as there is no evidence to suggest that air turbulence is becoming more severe. It is not uncommon for media coverage to create a false perception that flying will become unsafe in the future.
This news is unfortunate for all, but it is especially concerning for those of us who do not view flying through the air as a normal experience. In an attempt to understand the concept of “worsening turbulence”, I am exploring why avoiding it is not always possible. Do pilots ever feel fear? What goes through the minds of cabin crew during a turbulent flight? And of course, what is the likelihood of this particular flight crashing?
A good starting point would be in late 2012, when there was a knock on the door at the University of Reading in Berkshire. Dr. Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science, was working in his office when a colleague approached him with the question, “How does climate change affect turbulence?” As a new academic, Williams had focused on atmospheric physics with the goal of making a positive impact on the world. His colleague’s question not only piqued his interest, but also seemed highly significant and unexplored. Williams formed a team and began studying a specific airline route, from London to New York.
When training to calm scared passengers, flight attendants often compare turbulence to a pothole in the road. However, this analogy may not always be accurate, as turbulence can vary in severity. There are two main types of turbulence: convective turbulence, also known as “thermals”, which occurs closer to the ground due to unstable warm air patterns, and clear air turbulence, the focus of Williams’s research, which happens higher in the atmosphere and can cause sudden drops in altitude that make headlines.
According to Matt Fronzak, a former meteorology head at Delta Air Lines and principal aviation systems engineer at Mitre Corporation, turbulence can be compared to stirring milk in coffee and observing the interaction between two liquids. Fronzak explains that turbulence occurs when two opposing winds meet within a designated airspace, causing eddies or waves. This is what we experience as turbulence during a flight.
2 is increasing, and we know that wind shear is increasing
Satellite cannot detect clear air turbulence. According to Williams, this type of turbulence is unpredictable and can occur suddenly without any warning. A decade ago, Williams and his team studied satellite data on wind shear, which are turbulent air currents that can disrupt planes. They made a surprising discovery – as the Earth’s temperatures rose due to climate change, instances of wind shear and turbulence also increased. Initially, this was just a theory based on computer simulations and the reason behind it was not fully understood. However, after analyzing 40 years of satellite data from various flight paths around the world, they have a clearer understanding of the situation. The results are alarming – there has been a 15% increase in wind shear in the jet stream since the 1970s. Williams states that there is a definite connection between the rise in CO2 levels and the increase in wind shear.2
Modifying temperatures leads to alterations in winds, resulting in a more disrupted jet stream. This is not just a theoretical concept, as it has already occurred. It’s difficult to overlook the ironic consequence that the extensive carbon emissions from air travel may lead to more uncomfortable flights.
It is difficult to understand the significance of this in practical terms. On paper, it remains true that flying is the safest mode of transportation, as is often pointed out when expressing fear of flying. According to the International Air Transport Association, the likelihood of a fatal crash involving a US commercial airline is 1 in 7.7 million. The Civil Aviation Authority reports a fatality rate of 1 in 287 million passengers for UK airlines. Even if you choose to fly with one of the world’s 39 least safe airlines, the chance of a crash is still only 1 in 1.5 million. In comparison, in the US alone, there were 42,939 deaths from car crashes in 2021. To increase your chances of being in a plane crash to over 50%, you would need to fly daily for more than 10,000 years.
It is a common experience for passengers to feel helpless and uninformed during turbulence while flying. This was evident in the aftermath of a Lufthansa flight diversion in March, where uninformed passengers shared speculative accounts that caused sensationalized headlines. Even celebrity Camila Alves McConaughey, who was travelling with her husband Matthew McConaughey, shared a photo on Instagram showing the cabin in disarray and claimed that the plane had dropped 4,000 feet.
According to Patrick Smith, a pilot for a prominent American airline and the creator of Askthepilot.com, the statement is questionable. He attributes this to what he calls the “passenger embellishment factor” or PEF, a common occurrence. In situations without clear information, Smith explains that there can be a significant gap between the reality of the situation and how nervous passengers perceive it.
Based on data from FlightAware, a website that monitors the movement of airplanes in US airspace every one to two minutes, the specific Lufthansa flight experienced a decrease in altitude of approximately 10,000 feet over a period of 10 minutes, including a sudden drop of 1,000 feet in just one minute. According to Smith, this indicates that the plane gradually lost altitude over a certain amount of time and it is possible that the pilot intentionally adjusted the altitude to avoid turbulence, which may have been mistaken as a dive caused by the turbulence. As long as you are wearing your seatbelt throughout the flight, there is no need for concern.
This provides some comfort, to a certain extent. I am greatly relieved by the use of words like “managed descent” when discussing a 4,000ft drop. However, fear is a complex emotion that cannot always be rationalized with data. When asked if he has ever been afraid while flying, Williams responds calmly, “There is usually some minor turbulence on most flights, isn’t there? But I have experienced some very severe turbulence. I understand the safety of the aircraft and the physics behind it – I have a PhD in the subject. And I have confidence in pilots, who are skilled meteorologists. Yet, even then, my heart was racing. It affects you, doesn’t it? It taps into a primal part of your brain that disregards the laws of physics.”
At the age of nine, Li Benton was on a flight from London to San Francisco with her mother and sisters. Little did she know, a significant event was about to occur that would alter the course of her life. Her family, who had been in England visiting relatives, were en route back to Australia via the United States. This all happened in 1985, a time when smoking was allowed on planes and Live Aid was a popular event. Benton often shares this anecdote, though she acknowledges it is not actually humorous.
The traumatic event that followed has left a lasting impression on her. Fortunately, Benton, a 48-year-old successful radio producer from Sydney, had her seatbelt fastened when the plane encountered what seemed to be a typical case of clear air turbulence according to reports in the media the next day. The Boeing 707 went from flying through a 10-knot wind to being buffeted at 100 knots at a different angle. Instead of dropping, the plane suddenly shot up 1,000 feet in less than three seconds. Thirteen people were injured and one man broke his leg. Benton recalls the chaos on the plane with bottles flying around and the flight attendant taking cover in her seat. Years later, she still remembers the flight attendant’s hairstyle from that day. In hindsight, there was one particular detail that Benton believes made the experience much more significant – the flight attendant sitting across from her wearing the Pan-Am uniform had tears streaming down her face with her eyes closed. Despite the pilot’s attempt to reassure her that he had never experienced anything like it in his entire career, it was too late. Benton returned to Australia but when her family planned another trip to England a few years later, she refused to go. She has not set foot on a plane since then.
Some individuals who have a fear of flying may actually be experiencing other underlying fears. This fear may manifest as a result of various factors, such as becoming a parent or experiencing significant life changes. According to Meryl Love, a flight attendant for a major British airline, this fear may even develop in adulthood. Jim Hemphill, a financial advisor and my cousin, also experienced this fear during a time of high stress and important life events, which is a common trigger for the onset of aerophobia in adults. In fact, Hemphill notes that the loss of a father is often a major factor in the development of this fear.
Hemphill, a resident of Pennsylvania, always had a somewhat disdainful reaction towards anxious flyers in his social circle. However, one morning 13 years ago, he found himself rushing through the airport, experiencing what he now recognizes as a severe panic attack, in order to catch his flight. At 7:30am, he hurried into the airport bar and quickly downed a martini – did I mention we’re related? – to calm his racing heart. As the last person to board and seated in the bulkhead row, he turned to the flight attendant and declared, “I need to get off this plane.” Hemphill had 14 flights scheduled in the next five weeks but ended up cancelling all of them.
Benton realized in the years following her 1985 flight that the fear she had experienced as a child had become ingrained in her. She tried various methods to overcome it, including hypnosis, Valium, and therapy. One therapist even took her to Sydney airport in an attempt to help her reacclimate, but the smell of diesel triggered her fear. For the past 15 years, she has been on Qantas’ fear of flying list, a service where the airline calls nervous flyers to calm them down. When asked about these calls, Benton admits that she never picks up. She clarifies that her fear is not of dying, but rather of being trapped on a plane with no escape.
In the early stages of his fear, Hemphill extensively studied books on how to conquer a fear of flying. However, he found that the books focused solely on gaining confidence in the safety of planes and did not help him. Despite knowing that flying was objectively safe, he still experienced panic attacks and was afraid of becoming afraid again. Sometimes, he would think about the events of 9/11, specifically the passengers on United Airlines flight 93 who fought back against the hijackers. He believed that if he were in a similar situation, he could also take action. However, the thought of simply sitting through turbulence or boarding a plane with the door closing was still overwhelming for him.
In the confined space of an airplane, it can lead to unusual dynamics when faced with irrationality. During a bumpy flight, I am always struck by the contrast between my own thoughts of potential death and someone else’s attempt to simply complete their job a few feet away. Meryl Love is acutely aware of the nervousness of passengers during turbulence and shares that she and her colleagues make an effort to appear calm and cheerful. She explains, “I always put on a big smile and start laughing to reassure them.” In reality, she admits, “we actually enjoy turbulence! It means the captain can suspend food and drink services and we get a break from work. It’s like a snow day for flight attendants.”
Is it true that Love never experiences nervousness? “We do experience nervousness,” she explains, “but it may happen much later than others. And I have this morbid thought that if it does happen, it will be very quick. It won’t be a terrible death. Sometimes I have to reassure someone who is afraid of flying and I tell them about the safety of flying. But I never mention my own comfort, which is that you’ll be crushed into tiny pieces before you even realize what’s happened. It would be one of the best ways to go.”
I have always been confused by the idea that “Turbulence doesn’t lead to crashes.” If this is indeed true, then why do airlines sometimes cancel flights due to bad weather? If the plane is not at risk of crashing due to turbulence, then why not continue flying through it? Airlines, known for prioritizing profit over passenger comfort, surely wouldn’t waste money unless there was a valid reason.
As the leader of Delta’s meteorology team and later, as a coordinator and supervisor at Delta Flight Control in Atlanta, Georgia, there was a specific weather situation that always caused concern for Fronzak when he arrived at work in the morning. While various factors can cause disruptions in air travel, only half of them are related to weather. For example, an unforeseen snowstorm in Tennessee, where there is a shortage of snowplows, could impact flights departing from New York. According to Fronzak, ice can be especially challenging to deal with.
The most challenging weather situation in aviation is possibly thunderstorms, a phrase that, according to Fronzak, represents a range of dangers such as hail, lightning, heavy rain, wind shear, and the resulting turbulence – all of which can have an impact on aviation and could potentially be deadly. For airline meteorologists, the problem with thunderstorms is that they are highly unpredictable and hard to predict. While we can anticipate when conditions are conducive for their formation, it is currently impossible to accurately forecast the exact location and time of a thunderstorm.
In the cockpit, pilots are likened to zen masters who understand that in turbulent conditions, it is often best to take no action at all. Smith explains, “The airplane’s natural inclination is to return to its previous position in space after being disrupted by turbulence.” His calm demeanor is reminiscent of a British Airways pilot who, after a particularly rough descent, apologized jovially over the intercom for the “sporty landing.” Smith advises a hands-off approach during turbulence, stating that attempting to control every little bump will only exacerbate the situation. He clarifies that while there may be rare instances of severe turbulence where manual intervention is necessary, it is not the norm.
Using the term “fear” in this situation is a misinterpretation of what it means to be a pilot. The cockpit of an airline is a constantly changing environment with many tasks to manage. It is common for minor issues to arise and cause a momentary increase in heart rate. However, this does not indicate that a crash is imminent. It simply means that the pilot is trained to handle unexpected situations. This concept applies to all professions, as people’s heart rates may increase when faced with certain challenges, but that does not necessarily mean the situation is dangerous.
In rare instances, weather can cause a plane to crash. Eliminating pilot error, the conditions in which this can occur are very restricted. According to Fronzak, turbulence alone cannot bring down an aircraft, but a microburst and the resulting wind shear could impact a landing plane in a personal and difficult way.
In August of 1985, Fronzak was working as a dispatcher for Delta planes at Dallas Fort Worth, when Delta flight 191 was approaching for landing. Due to storms in the area, the plane encountered a microburst during its descent. It is crucial to differentiate this weather phenomenon from turbulence, as a microburst is a very hazardous event where air rapidly descends in a strong downdraft as part of a storm system. This is why pilots may request to go around if they see a thunderstorm at the end of the runway. Unfortunately, on this particular day, the microburst caused flight 191 to crash onto the Texas State Highway, resulting in the death of 136 passengers and crew members, as well as a motorist. Only 27 individuals on the plane survived. Fronzak had dispatched the planes that landed before and after flight 191. He reflects, “There but for the grace of God.”
The significance of this accident should be acknowledged as it led to significant changes in forecasting technology in the US, ultimately resulting in safer flying conditions. The collaboration between the pilots union, FAA, and airlines aimed to identify the most probable occurrences of microbursts. After extensive research, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory developed the Integrated Terminal Weather System, which offers precise predictions of microburst activity up to 30 minutes in advance at major airports across the nation. Since the crash of flight 191, there has not been a single plane crash in the US caused by microbursts.
Other enhancements have been made. Williams is aware that his discoveries regarding the rise in turbulence have been exaggerated in the media. To mitigate this, he notes the progress in prediction technologies such as “lidar”, which functions similarly to radar but uses light waves instead of radio waves. Early tests have shown that it can detect clear air turbulence up to 20 miles ahead. Additionally, AI is now being utilized in the analysis of flight data, potentially improving safety.
According to Williams, as someone who often speaks last at conferences on Friday afternoons when everyone is leaving for the airport, he feels obligated to provide some reassurance. He informs attendees that turbulence is not a common occurrence, with only about 0.1% of the atmosphere experiencing severe turbulence that would cause you to lift out of your seat. The chances of encountering this type of turbulence during your flight are very low. Even if his research is correct and turbulence increases by three times in the year 2050, the chances are still very slim at only a few tenths of a percent. Additionally, he states that his research does not suggest that any parts of airspace will become inaccessible due to climate change.
After three years without flying, my cousin Jim Hemphill discovered a therapeutic program that helped him cope. Now, he shares that when turbulence hits during a flight, he has a routine he follows. “I intentionally relax my legs, take off my shoes, and stretch out. I focus on relaxing my body.” Although there is still an urge to tense up when the plane shakes, by controlling his reactions, he is able to prevent the panic from taking over and regain a sense of power. “If you tense up your entire body, your mind will think, ‘We are in grave danger.’ But by choosing to relax and having faith that it will diminish and disappear, I have observed that it does work.” Not long after he resumed flying, he and his family were scheduled to go on a trip to Italy. When his wife asked what he was most looking forward to, she was surprised when he said, “Putting my seat down and closing my eyes during the flight.”
Each year, Benton has been envious of her friends’ posts showcasing their travels abroad on social media. After nearly four decades since her frightening incident above Greenland, she believes it is now the right moment to find closure. “I am in a wonderful relationship and I wish to explore the world with my partner. I don’t want this to hinder me for the rest of my life.”
I am pleased to report that our flight from South Carolina was successful and we did not experience any crashes. Despite some initial turbulence, the landing was surprisingly smooth. The pilot took a wide route to the north and west of the airport before landing seamlessly. As I sat on the runway, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for worrying so much. I knew that on my next flight, I would likely go through the same anxious routine.