What Does It Mean When Passengers Are Injured in Turbulence?

Though turbulence is not a problem for an airliner. Hard to believe? Read more.

Posted Feb 19, 2014

It happens again and again. A plane hits severe turbulence. Passengers and crew members get injured. Six passengers and two flight attendants were hospitalized when a Cathay Pacific 747 hit turbulence over Japan. On a United Airlines 737, passengers and crew members were injured as it was preparing to land at Billing, Montana.

Though turbulence is not a problem for an airliner, when the plane moves violently enough for a person to be injured, anxious fliers have a hard time believing that the plane is not in any danger. As hard as it is for anxious fliers to believe that, turbulence is of no significance to the plane.

And the pilots? Most pilots hit severe turbulence only once or twice in their entire career. Only one pilot in hundreds has been on a flight where turbulence caused anyone to be injured. Severe turbulence is extremely rare. And therein lies the problem. Passengers get complacent and leave their seat belt unattached. They almost always get away with it. Getting away with it reinforces the behavior.

Since some passengers resist using a seat belt, the FAA requires flight attendants to go around the cabin at times and check up on the passengers. But if the seat belt sign isn't actually on, they can't require passengers to belt in. Using a seat belt when the sign is off is recommended, but not required.

If turbulence hits unexpectedly while the seat belt sign is off, passengers not following the recommendation may get hurt. In other cases, passengers are injured because they did not comply with the seat belt sign. In either case, when you read an account of a passenger being injured, it is a sure bet that the passenger was not belted in.

Flight attendants are in a more difficult, and more vulnerable, position. If they are serving when turbulence starts, they have to roll the service cart back into the galley and slip it into its stowage slot. Aiming a heavy cart isn't easy in turbulence. If it takes two hands to guide the cart, the flight attendant can't use the handhold in the galley. If they hold on with one hand and try to guide the cart with the other, they risk being injured by the cart as it moves around. Only after everything in the galley is stowed can the flight attendants belt in to ride the turbulence out.

Pilots are used to turbulence. They see nothing frightening about it. Though the plane moves this way and that in turbulence, the pilots don't fight it. There's no reason to. The movements—left, right, up, down—average out. The plane stays pointed where it needs to be pointed, and its altitude changes hardly at all. You may be surprised to learn that pilots generally leave the autopilot on during turbulence. Though Hollywood may show the pilots fighting for control of the plane, that is just fantasy. What do pilots do during turbulence? They drink coffee. From a pilot's point of view, their biggest hazard during turbulence is getting a coffee stain on their shirt.

It is almost impossible for a passenger to rest assured of their safety when in turbulence. Fear causes them to believe there is danger. Hopefully, technology can help change that. I've designed an app that includes a great deal of help for the anxious flier. One of its most interesting features is a G-force meter.

When standing on the ground, the G-force meter reads +1.0 G, the normal force of gravity. On an elevator, G-force fluctuates. When the elevator starts to ascend, we feel heavier and the G-force meter reads about +1.2 G. When the elevator slows its ascent, we feel "light-headed." The G-force meter reading drops to around + 0.8 G. When the elevator stops, the reading returns to +1.0 G.

This is exactly the range of G-force fluctuation encountered in light turbulence. Even in severe turbulence, the readings would range from + 0.4 G to +1.6 G. Airliners are built to withstand far more G-force than turbulence can produce. Minimum requirements are - 1.0 G to + 2.5 G, and most airliners can withstand twice that.

If you were to go bungee jumping, or if you feel off a ladder, you would be in free fall. Free fall is 0 G. Anxiety can cause us to exaggerate, and + 0.8 G can feel like free fall. So, if you become concerned that the plane may be falling, use the G-force meter. Check the reading. You will easily see that, though the G-forces are fluctuating, they are never near 0 G.

To get the app—which is free—go to www.fearofflying.com/app, which will guide you to the app for your device. Then when there is turbulence, check the G-force meter on the app. It will prove the plane is not in any trouble at all.

Remember: If you wear your seat belt, you have nothing to fear from turbulence. If more help is needed to keep anxiety at bay, consider my book listed at www.psychologytoday.com/experts/captain-tom-bunn-lcsw.