A photo taken during flight turbulence. Photo credit: M. Falardeau.

A photo taken during flight turbulence.
Photo credit: M. Falardeau.

There are a variety of reasons for flight turbulence, which is that uncomfortable bumpy feeling that most passengers on most flights have experienced.

Fortunately for passengers and flight attendants alike, most turbulence is minor and avoidable. And for most passengers, this is a case of “fear of the unknown” because most people don’t really understand what turbulence really is.

“…often cited by airline passengers as one of the things they least like about flying.”

 

What is flight turbulence?

Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) is the most common type of turbulence. It happens when an aircraft flies into a jet stream, which is a horizontal tunnel of air that can extend for a thousand miles or more.

Jet streams are not detectable by radar, but pilots often relay information to each other so they can either be avoided, or used to a pilots advantage. Air in jet streams can flow up to 250 miles per hour, so sometimes pilots position plane inside a jet stream and use a push from the “tail wind” to save fuel and fly faster.

Flight turbulence falls into 3 categories:

  • Light: It can be compared to hitting a small bump in the road while driving.
  • Moderate: It can be strong enough to knock drinks from the carts of flight attendants and unsettle some passengers, but it doesn’t cause concern among pilots.
  • Severe: While very rare, severe turbulence can cause an airplane to shift in altitude by 100 feet or more. It’s very uncomfortable, however, it’s still not considered to be dangerous by pilots.

Flight Turbulence. Just like a bump in the road? Photo credit: B. Saborio.

Flight Turbulence. Just like a bump in the road? Photo credit: B. Saborio.


Although turbulence isn’t considered as a very dangerous part of air travel, it’s often cited by airline passengers as one of the things they least like about flying.

Flight attendants who take a few preventative steps before a flight can really help passengers who are particularly unnerved at the concept of turbulence.

5 ways to help passengers worried about flight turbulence:

  1. Flight attendants and crew can sometimes make uncomfortable passengers more comfortable by explaining what causes turbulence. Also, it may help to tell passengers that turbulence is considered a minor, common part of travel on airlines, and it’s usually not a concern for pilots.
  2. It’s important that uneasy passengers sit in a seat that they feel comfortable with.

    If sitting next to a window, in the aisle, near the bathroom, or near the flight attendants makes a passenger more comfortable, he or she should talk to the flight attendants to accommodate that.

    This will make adjusting to any turbulence during a flight more manageable.

  3. Passengers should go to the bathroom before flights and remain seated as much as possible during the flight. Turbulence makes walking around the plane more dangerous.
  4. Distractions can help some passengers overcome their fears of turbulence. Reading a book or watching a movie can be the perfect way for an airline passenger to put their minds at ease.
  5. Flight attendants can also assist passengers by telling them when turbulence is expected, and when it’s safe to move about the plane.
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