Photo by Blake Guidry from Unsplash

Up in the air: Is climate change to blame for increasingly turbulent skies?

Following the Singapore Airlines incident last May, some airlines are changing their meal and seatbelt policies onboard.

It was a routine non-stop flight from London Heathrow to Singapore. Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321 was cruising over Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta region, in what was supposed to be almost the last leg of their journey, when one of the worst possible things that could happen mid-flight happened: for one minute and two seconds, passengers felt their plane rocked by sudden and extreme turbulence.

In that short span of time, the plane climbed from its cruising altitude of 37,000 feet to 37,400 feet, and then dropped to 36,975 feet—at one point a 178ft drop over 4.6sec—before easing back to cruising altitude. The ill-fated Boeing 777-300ER carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew members made an emergency landing at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where several of the passengers had to be hospitalized.

The incident left a 73-year-old passenger dead from a suspected heart attack and over 40 injured, including an Australian dance teacher who will never be able to dance again

The world was left reeling in shock, particularly after images from inside the plane made their way to the news: bloodied crew members and passengers, oxygen masks hanging from the ceiling, bottle and trays and personal items strewn on the floor.

This terrifying incident has prompted some airlines to recalibrate their cabin service protocols or issue reminders in a bid to ensure better passenger safety should a similar incident happen again—especially in a world experiencing unprecedented climate change.

How airlines are responding

Just three days after the incident, on May 24, Singapore Airlines announced new and “more cautious” measures to manage turbulence in the air, as per a report on The Straits Times

Specifically, in-flight meal services will now be suspended and the cabin crew will have to also buckle up when the seat-belt sign is lit. Moreover, unlike in the past—when only hot drinks would be cut off during turbulence—the new measures would require all meal and drink services to halt “when the ride gets bumpy.”

Korean Air announced on July 1 that it would be finishing cabin service 20 minutes earlier on medium and long-haul routes. Photo from Getty Images

Singapore Airlines is one of only 10 five-star rated airlines by Skytrax, which means this move could influence other carriers to make similar measures, the article continues. In fact, one other airline has already followed suit.

Korean Air, which is also part of the elite Skytrax list, is ending its cabin service earlier because of increased turbulence concerns, according to an article on Business Insider

On July 1, the airline announced that it would be finishing cabin service 20 minutes earlier on medium- and long-haul routes, meaning cabin service will now end 40 minutes before landing. Korean Air’s policy change aims to reduce the risks of safety incidents, including in turbulence-related scenarios, as per a report on the Korea Times. This gives flight attendants more time to focus on the safety of passengers and themselves before landing, the period when most accidents occur.

Emirati newspaper The National, meanwhile, reported that the Singapore Airlines incident is likely to lead to stricter seatbelt rules, according to Tim Clark, president of Emirates. Clark made the comments during a media conference in Dubai at the International Air Transport Association’s annual meeting last June 3.

AirAsia Philippines reminds passengers to remain “COOL” during turbulence: stay Calm, be On the lookout for announcements, Obey safety instructions, and be reminded that Loose seat belts are less effective.

Clark emphasizes that as a result of the incidents, “The industry will start being a lot more concerned about making sure that people are in their seats and strapped in.” He adds that they are looking into using “a bit of AI” to predict where turbulence might be.

Meanwhile, AirAsia Philippines encourages its guests to remain “COOL” during turbulence: stay Calm, be On the lookout for announcements, Obey safety instructions, and be reminded that Loose seat belts are less effective.

“Safety is a shared commitment among flight crew and guests. As we enter the rainy season, we expect more than 10 typhoons to hit the Philippines throughout the remainder of the year which could potentially affect flights. Having the right information about turbulence will also prepare everyone for their trips,” AirAsia head of Communications and Public Affairs and first officer Steve Dailisan says.

Climate change and turbulence

In last Monday’s announcement, Korean Air also mentioned how turbulence had “become a persistent and growing problem in recent years,” adding that the number of incidents had doubled in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2019.

Over the past few weeks, for instance, other airlines have also experienced stronger turbulence mid-flight. Six days after the Singapore Airlines incident, 12 people were injured, of which eight had to be hospitalized, by turbulence on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Dublin. On May 28, local media reported a Turkish Airlines flight attendant hit the plane’s ceiling and broke her back also due to turbulence.

Qatar Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Air Europa have all experienced stronger turbulence mid-flight in the past few weeks. Photo above from Qatar Airways, photo of Turkish Airlines from Simple Flying, and photo of Air Europa from Reuters

Most recently, 30 passengers were injured—some with neck and skull fractures—after an Air Europa flight from Madrid to Uruguay was hit by “strong turbulence” and had to make an emergency landing in Brazil. 

Korean Air recognizes this problem, suggesting that the climate crisis might have been playing a role. “Turbulence is becoming more frequent, especially as the aircraft descends, due to large temperature differences between altitudes,” it says.

These statements echo the results of a June 2023 study by researchers from the University of Reading, which found that turbulence is getting more common over the North Atlantic. It said that over a typical point, the most severe type of clear air turbulence increased by 55 percent between 1979 and 2020.

In addition, Guy Gratton, an associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University, said in a Business Insider interview, that the warming atmosphere speeds up the jet streams — causing more severe turbulence. Jet streams are narrow bands of strong wind in the upper levels of the atmosphere, typically occurring around an altitude or about 30,000 feet.

A Singapore Airlines aircraft takes off from Changi Airport in Singapore. With climate change getting worse by the day, it looks like passengers should brace for the possibility of stronger turbulence. Photo from AFP

Gratton explains that with climate change, the troposphere—the lowest layer of the atmosphere—is getting warmer, while the lower stratosphere—the layer just above—is getting slightly colder. The increasing difference in energy between the two layers results in more energy going into the jet stream.

Adding to this is climate change enlarging the so-called Rossby waves, which are meanders found in jet streams. “So if you’re trying to fly across the Atlantic, you’ve now got bigger waves in the jet stream, and you’ve also got more energy in the jet stream,” Gratton said. “So that is creating more friction, which is creating more turbulence.”

Looks like climate change is causing not only hotter temperatures, longer heat waves, rising sea levels, more extensive droughts, and shrinking glaciers—it’s also making our skies more turbulent.

The new lifestyle.