Exeprts weigh in after death on Singapore Airlines flight

The cause of the turbulence is under investigation. Singapore Airlines said the Singapore-bound flight from London encountered severe turbulence about 10 hours after departure.

Death by turbulence rarely occurs, but severe encounters are not uncommon, according to Larry Cornman, a physicist and project scientist with the U.S. National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“Often, for something like this, it’s just wrong place, wrong time,” said Cornman, who studies small-scale motions of the atmosphere that could endanger aircraft.

Out of millions upon millions of flights, turbulence has caused 185 serious injuries from 2009 to 2023, the latest year with publicly available data, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The agency, which requires airlines to report injuries and deaths, categorizes a serious injury as any that requires more than two days of hospitalization; involves any internal organ; or results in bone fractures, second- or third-degree burns, severe hemorrhages, or nerve, muscle or tendon damage.

Of the reported incidents from 2009 to 2022, at least 129 crew members and 34 passengers were injured.

Turbulence-related deaths can be caused by heart attacks or head injuries if a passenger’s head strikes the ceiling or gets hit by falling luggage, Cornman said.

“Anything that could cause a death on the ground can certainly cause it inside an aluminum tube at 35,000 feet,” he said, adding that seat-belted passengers should still feel safe in the skies. 

“These large transport aircraft are built quite strongly. They will not fall apart or come out of the sky due to turbulence,” Cornman said. 

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said initial reports appear to indicate that the Singapore flight encountered clear-air turbulence — the most dangerous type because it cannot be seen and is virtually undetectable with current technology.

“One second, you’re cruising smoothly,” Nelson said. “The next, passengers, crew and unsecured carts or other items are being thrown around the cabin.”

Nelson and a group of researchers say such incidents of clear-air turbulence — which is difficult to forecast and avoid because it is not associated with storms — are on the rise due to climate change. 

A 2023 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that severe clear-air turbulence increased by more than 50% over the North Atlantic Ocean from 1979 to 2020.

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