Find out what causes turbulence and which routes are the best and worst for avoiding it.
Have you ever been on a plane when suddenly the plane becomes unsteady in the air, swaying side to side and bumping up and down? Turbulence can occur on any flight and is quite normal and usually without any consequences. However, although it is normal, it still causes passengers concern and stress, especially those with a fear of flying or first-time flyers.
Turbulence occurs when a plane travels through a patch of 'rough air'. Normally, planes travel on smooth flows of wind. However, sometimes these winds can have waves in them or disturbances to them, meaning the plane goes up and down and side to side in line with these interferences.
This rough patch of air can happen for a number of reasons, and can occur anywhere from ground level up to above cruising altitude. Some of the most common causes include mountains, jet streams and storms, or any other ways the airflow can be pushed up or disrupted. For example, when smooth flows of air hits large objects such as mountains, it has nowhere to go but up, therefore adding disruption to a patch of air.
The jet streams are another area which often results in turbulence. Jet streams are fast flowing currents of air, with the strongest on Earth being the polar jets. Because these streams of air are often narrow and bending with different speeds of air, there is often turbulence associated when coming in or out of the jet streams.
Another reason why turbulence commonly occurs is because of thunderstorms. The way in which storm clouds form means that air is pushed away rapidly, causing air moving in a different direction and thus waves in the atmosphere. This means that turbulence can occur as a result of a storm, but a few hundred miles away from the actual storm, making the encounter of turbulence less predictable.
An uncommon reason, yet still possible, for turbulence occurring is by flying in the 'wake' of another plane. This is similar to boats and waves on water, where the water is disturbed by a big and fast boat, causing the other boats to bob up and down on the waves. This is what happens in the air when large and fast aircraft disrupt the air nearby. This is usually avoidable by careful planning and monitoring, meaning that planes often don't get close enough in the air to cause this.
Although the occurrence of turbulences is often unpredictable and unavoidable, there are some routes which are statistically better for turbulence, and also those which are in favour of less turbulence due to their geographical features. Here are some things to look out for if you want to avoid turbulence:
Because of the lack of large geographical features such as mountains or hills, or large human structures such as skyscrapers in cities, routes which cross large bodies of water are often less turbulent. This being said, routes across the North Atlantic should be avoided, due to the jet stream's location there often causing turbulence. Similarly, the
Similar to the reason why water bodies often lack turbulence, flying over flat land will often not occur turbulence because of the lack of air disturbance from tall structures. For example, a domestic flight from New York to Chicago is over flat land so is unlikely to encounter turbulence.
The equator marks the confluence point of the northern hemisphere winds with the southern hemisphere winds, meaning there is often turbulence from the meeting. In addition, the equator is very hot, meaning that thunderstorms are often more frequent and thus more chance of turbulence.
Statistics say that flights during the early morning or night are less turbulent than day-time flights. These red-eye flights mean you can worry less and catch up on much-needed sleep due to a smoother flight and less worrying about turbulence. This is because during the night, wind speeds are typically reduced, and also thunderstorms tend to alleviate overnight. In addition, if flying over large areas of land, day-time temperatures can rapidly increase, creating convection air movement and thus turbulence, so travelling in the early morning before temperatures get high can avoid this turbulence.
One of the most popular routes which experience turbulence is flying from New York to London (and also London to New York). This is mainly due to the disruption from the jet stream, although most pilots will do their best to fly north or south around it, even if it means a longer flight time. Some airlines which fly this route include Air France, Delta, United, Austrian and Norwegian.
Flying over Japan in winter often causes turbulence, and this route flies right above Japan. This is because Japan experiences harsh winter windstorms, which causes severe turbulence. However, you can often check the weather forecasts before flying to see if there are any windstorms due. Airlines that fly this route include Korean Air, American and Delta.
There are certain airports which are located close to the equator which means frequent thunderstorms, especially in certain seasons. These airports include Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK), Cancun International Airport (CUN), Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), Miami International Airport (MIA), Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM) and Singapore Changi Airport (SIN).
Some airports are known for being turbulent when flying in or out of this airport, and Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) is one of these. Typically this is short in duration, as it occurs when going above the permanent patch of rough air in takeoff or when descending through it when landing. Airlines which fly into this airport include JetBlue, Delta, American Airlines and Volaris.
A flight going from London to South Africa will often encounter multiple episodes of turbulence. From the high mountains of the Alps in Europe, to crossing the Equator which means changing winds and thus turbulence. Airlines which fly from London to South Africa include Etihad Airways, Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Air and SWISS.
Although this may seem obvious, many passengers still don't wear their seatbelt when the seatbelt signs go off, meaning people often fall asleep and have to be woken up if the plane encounters turbulence. Even wearing your seatbelt loosely can prevent you from moving around in your seat and prevent injury.
Most people find that once they have read guides like this one you're reading which explain what turbulence is and why it happens are much better with turbulence the next time they encounter it. This is because when you know what is happening, rather than just worrying about the possibilities of meanings when your plane lurches through the sky, you'll be less likely to worry.
Did you know that some models of newer aircraft are better at preventing the effects of turbulence, with bigger planes often coping with rough patches of air much better. You can look up the model of the plane that you will be flying on during the booking process at Alternative Airlines, see how here.
If you suffer from a fear of flying and of turbulence, it may be worth going to your doctor about it, as they may have some anxiety management techniques for you to try out when flying. Similarly, it may be worth mentioning it to the flight attendants, so that they will be able to check on you if turbulence occurs.
When a pilot encounters a rough patch of air, they may try to change the altitude they are flying at to avoid the patch of air and get smoother conditions. However, as turbulence is not a risk to plane safety, this is not necessary for the safety of the plane, but simply for the comfort of the passenger.
The number of passengers who have been injured by turbulence is minimal - under 60 people from over 3 billion annual passengers. These injuries are often minimal and far from life-threatening, such as spilling hot coffee or falling into a chair causing a little bruising. Additionally, out of these 60 people, over 2/3 of them were not wearing their seatbelt when it happened, meaning that most of the injuries are even more preventable. Planes are built to withstand turbulence, so there is an extremely low risk of a turbulence-indued plane crash.
Yes, turbulence can be scary, especially when you are not expecting it and suddenly you feel the plane lurch in the sky. However, it is important that if you are scared to remember facts on this page, such as how to cope and that it's completely normal when flying.
According to experts, the best place to sit on a plane to avoid feeling the effects of turbulence is at the centre of the plane, closer to its centre of gravity. Likewise, the back of the plane tends to be rockiest, so best avoided for passengers nervous about flying with turbulence. Pilots will often also slow their speed to prevent damage, and also reroute the plane if necessary. If you want to select your seat so you can avoid the worst turbulence, learn how to here.
Nighttime or morning flights are statistically better for turbulence, compared to those in the day. Although turbulence can't be completely avoided at night, winds are often weaker and thermal convection turbulence is less, making the chances of encountering turbulence reduced.
Although turbulence occurs in both large and small planes, it is typically worse in smaller planes because they weigh less, and so more likely to move in line with the air and thus feel turbulence more.
Air and wind over the Atlantic is usually calm, providing some of the least turbulent routes. However, if flying in certain areas such as near the equator or north near the jetstream, you may encounter turbulence. However, this turbulence is usually predictable and so avoidable by the pilots.
Most flights encounter a bit of turbulence on any route and it is completely normal for this to happen.