26th May 2024 – (Singapore) In recent weeks, two major airlines have experienced severe turbulence incidents, causing injuries to passengers and crew, and in one tragic case, a fatality. Qatar Airways flight QR107 from Doha to Dublin encountered turbulence while flying over Turkey on Sunday, resulting in twelve people sustaining injuries. Just days earlier, Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 from London to Singapore was hit by sudden and extreme turbulence, leading to the death of a passenger and leaving dozens hospitalised in Bangkok.

These incidents vividly illustrate the serious risks posed by turbulence, a phenomenon that experts warn could become more frequent and severe due to climate change. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, emphasised that turbulence is a “serious workplace safety issue for flight attendants,” with clear air turbulence being particularly dangerous as it is virtually undetectable with current technology.

Professor Paul Williams, an atmospheric science expert from the University of Reading, has conducted extensive research on the impact of climate change on turbulence. His findings indicate a worrying trend: severe clear-air turbulence in the North Atlantic has increased by 55% since 1979, and projections suggest a doubling or trebling of severe turbulence in the coming decades if the climate continues to change as expected.

The consequences of severe turbulence can be devastating, as evidenced by the Singapore Airlines incident. Passengers and unsecured items can be violently thrown around the cabin, resulting in serious injuries such as spinal trauma and head injuries. In the case of flight SQ321, 22 people sustained spinal injuries, and six were being treated for skull and brain injuries, with the possibility of permanent paralysis in some cases.

As climate change continues to alter our atmosphere, the aviation industry must adapt to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. While incidents as severe as the Singapore Airlines case remain rare, the increasing frequency of turbulence calls for a change in mindset and approach to in-flight safety.

One suggestion put forward by an aviation industry source is to revise the use of seatbelt signage. Instead of switching off the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign during the flight, which some passengers interpret as an instruction to unbuckle, the sign could remain illuminated throughout the journey. The colour of the illumination could change from red during take-off, descent, and turbulence to green during other phases of the flight, encouraging passengers to keep their belts fastened while seated.

Airlines and regulatory bodies must also invest in research and development to improve turbulence detection and avoidance systems. While current weather radar technology can identify and navigate around some areas of turbulence, clear air turbulence remains a significant challenge. Collaborations with atmospheric scientists and meteorologists could lead to better predictive models and early warning systems, allowing pilots to adjust their routes and minimise the risk of encountering severe turbulence.

Furthermore, the aviation industry should prioritise training and support for flight attendants, who are at the forefront of ensuring passenger safety during turbulence incidents. Comprehensive training on turbulence management, as well as mental health support to deal with the psychological impact of such events, should be standard practice across all airlines.