Climate change increases the likelihood of aircraft turbulence and related injuries to passengers and crew, which could trigger more litigation against commercial airlines and other aviation entities.
Advances in technology can help mitigate the risks, but human behavior also plays an important role in preventing turbulence-related injuries during flights, experts say.
The incidence of reported events of either major or much rarer severe turbulence is increasing and is a result of the changing climate, said Jonathan Ziss, Philadelphia-based partner at Goldberg Segalla LLP.
While air travel is statistically considered to be “inherently safe, any increase is worth noting and is worth thinking about,”; he said.
From 2009 to 2022, the National Transportation Safety Board recorded 163 serious injuries to airline crew and passengers from turbulence on Part 121 airlines, which include major and regional airlines and cargo carriers. Damage to the crew accounted for 79%.
The cost of turbulence to U.S. airlines due to injuries — medical care, missed work and liability payouts — aircraft damage and flight delays is estimated at up to $500 million annually, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
In March, a Lufthansa flight en route from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany, was diverted after it encountered significant turbulence at 37,000 feet, injuring seven passengers.
Hawaiian Airlines is facing litigation after severe turbulence on a flight 40 minutes from landing in Honolulu last December left 25 passengers and crew injured, six seriously. There were no pilot reports of severe turbulence along the route before the accident, but the US National Weather Service had warned of thunderstorms in the area, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report.
While turbulence can occur when the air is disturbed by convective activity, such as thunderstorms, or in the wake of large aircraft, so-called clear-air turbulence is air movement created by jet streams.
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Clear-air turbulence has a significant effect on the aviation sector and is increasing with climate change as wind shear intensifies, says Paul D. Williams, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Reading in England.
“The amount of wind shear in the jet stream has increased by 15% since satellites began observing it in the 1970s, and that’s because of climate change. Wind shear is what generates turbulence,” Williams said, noting that the amount of severe turbulence could double or triple by 2050 , based on this trend.
For commercial aircraft with typical cruising altitudes of 30,000 feet to 42,000 feet, turbulence in clear air is a problem because it is invisible and increases at several altitudes. “Changing elevations is not going to be an escape route from this problem,” Williams said.
Turbulence incidents can be a basis for liability losses, says Marc S. Moller, an attorney at the plaintiff law firm Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in New York.
When turbulence causes injury to passengers on international flights, the Montreal Convention of 1999 applies, essentially making airlines absolutely liable, Mr. Moller. In domestic turbulence incidents in the United States, however, passengers must prove some degree of negligence on the part of the airline, he said.
“Obviously the pilot goes on the public address system early and several times during the flight telling people to keep their seat belts on because of concerns about air turbulence,” he said. But when a flight continues without turbulence, warnings can be ignored by passengers, he said.
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Airlines are held to the highest level of care with respect to safety, so it’s more than just an ordinary negligence standard that would apply, said Mark McKinnon, a Washington-based partner at Fox Rothschild LLP.
However, if an aircraft encounters turbulence in clear air that is undetectable and the pilots had no way of knowing it would occur, they are “not a guarantor of the crew’s safety,” McKinnon said. “If there was no possible negligence, because there was no way for them to detect the turbulence, then there will be no liability,” he said.
Human factors influence the frequency of turbulence damage, said Daniel Bannister, London-based leader of weather and climate research with the WTW Research Network, part of Willis Towers Watson PLC. “If your seat belt is on, incidents are very low.”
Flight attendants tend to be more at risk of turbulence-related injuries, especially during the cruise phases of flights as they walk through the cabin doing their job, he said.
At a Federal Aviation Administration safety summit in March, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy stated that turbulence accounted for three out of every four flight attendant injuries.
Airline personnel injured on the job would primarily have a workers’ compensation claim, Ziss said.
If the damage was serious enough and a third party was believed to be at fault — as in bad information from air traffic control, a faulty radar system or poor aircraft design — they could also pursue a claim against other entities, he said.