Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Clear air turbulence: After a decade as a cabin crew member, I have little doubt it’s getting worse

It is terrifying to be suddenly thrown about like a ragdoll at 35,000 feet. Evidence suggests climate change is the cause of this worsening turbulence

The shocking footage from inside the Singapore Airlines flight from London to Sydney last Monday, followed a few days later by reports that six passengers and six crew members had been injured in turbulence on a flight from Doha in Qatar to Ireland, left me with a feeling of dread.

Having worked as cabin crew for the past decade, I have little doubt that the incidence and severity of turbulence is increasing. I am no stranger to the usual few bumps that might knock a G&T off a tray table, but the ferocity of last week’s incident, which left one man dead from a cardiac arrest and dozens hospitalised with spinal injuries, has convinced me of something I had suspected: severe turbulence due to climate change is on the rise. Like the old saying goes, it is only when you are directly affected by something, that you begin to take it seriously. Like everyone else, I am aware of the dangers of global warming, but after the decades-long campaign of awareness raising, I gradually tuned out the warnings to a low, humming white noise.

Now finally, after many years of flying all over the world with an international airline, I have seen for myself that airspace has become distinctly choppier. Unlike other forms of atmospheric air changes that cause the “bumpiness” with which all frequent air travellers will be familiar, clear air turbulence is undetectable by flight deck radar. This prevents flight crew pre-empting periods of air disruption and preparing the cabin, notifying the cabin crew and illuminating the seatbelt signs as a warning to passengers. In the case of the Singapore Airlines incident, it appears to have been caused by clear air turbulence, which means passengers and crew had little time to brace themselves by donning their seatbelts and were also probably moving about in the cabin and vulnerable to being thrown upwards and hitting the ceiling of the aircraft, which would explain the high number spinal injuries.

Warmer temperatures cause more intense thunderstorms and convective activity, which in turn can result in stronger turbulence

What people might be unaware of is the link between climate change and turbulence. Global warming and changes in weather patterns due to climate change can lead to increased turbulence as warmer temperatures cause more intense thunderstorms and convective activity, which in turn can result in stronger turbulence. A 2017 study predicted that turbulence could double on the most popular international routes over the next 30 years. During a standard preflight briefing, cabin crew are notified of any expected periods of turbulence so they can prepare the cabin and ensure the safety of passengers. Unfortunately, due to the increase in undetectable forms of clear air turbulence, catastrophic injuries such as those which occurred on the Singapore Airlines flight may be on the rise.


Is climate disruption making turbulence more extreme?

Listen | 21:15

As someone who has experienced clear air turbulence on many occasions, I can tell you how terrifying it can be to be suddenly thrown about like a ragdoll at 35,000ft. I remember one experience I had of turbulence on a flight coming out of Johannesburg where the entire cabin screamed in unison as we were jolted violently from side to side. On a flight to Santiago, two crew members had to spend the flight lying down in first class due to injuries sustained by falling trolleys. A peculiar thing happens to the body when adrenaline kicks in and, however tired I may feel after a sleepless layover, I will suddenly experience a surge of energy, like an electric current coursing through my body. On the Santiago flight, I started off the sector with a rotten headache due to dehydration, which instantly evaporated once the turbulence hit, replaced with a pin-sharp laser focus on making my way to the nearest jump seat and strapping in.

Working as cabin crew involves more acting ability than you might think, and the most common time where you need to utilise your performance skills is when you’re hobbling down the aisle, desperately trying to hang onto the overhead lockers, while maintaining a breezy demeanour which communicates “everything is fine, all business as usual, folks!” When extreme turbulence hits, all eyes are on me to reassure passengers it is “all perfectly normal”. Aside from checking seatbelts and securing the cabin, I make sure to plaster on the biggest “Julia Roberts” smile I can muster and crack a few jokes along the way.

The truth is, I probably don’t know what’s going on myself, as the flight deck will rightfully prioritise the safety of the aircraft over communication with the crew. I usually explain to passengers that it is just like going over a speed bump and not to worry. Really, I would like to tell them to start recycling their plastics and consider their carbon footprint’s impact on the air temperature or we are all in for a much bumpier ride in future.

Paula Gahan is a London-based Irish crew member for an international airline and hosts the The Bad Air Hostess podcast