News Guide to Turbulence

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Guide to Turbulence

Looking for a bump-free flight? Read our guide on the routes, aircraft and seats you should choose.

Flight turbulence is, in all but the rarest of cases, a ‘normal’ occurrence during flights and represents absolutely nothing to worry about from a safety perspective. Its existence is usually caused by particular types of cloud formations, thunderstorms, flying over mountain ranges or through jet streams.

Despite being an unsettling nuisance for both passengers and crew, aircraft are specifically designed to be able to withstand significant amounts of bluster and instability, with pilots utilising many features to deal with the turbulence, including employing slower flying speeds and altering the aircraft’s altitude.

There are however some steps passengers can take to help minimise the chance of experiencing in-flight bumpiness:

Are you seated comfortably?

Experts suggest that opting for seats situated over the plane’s wings, and nearest to the aircraft’s centre of gravity may minimise the effects of turbulence. During unsettled conditions, the bumpiest ride is likely to be had by passengers seated closest to the tail of the plane – so give these seats a miss if jerky journeys are a particular concern.

Stephen Slater of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots recommends sitting in business or first class as you normally have more space around you, and this allows your eye line and sense of balance to attune itself better to movement, therefore passengers might feel less queasy.

All right in the night

It’s advocated that choosing to fly at night (and early mornings) can lower the chance of planes experiencing turbulence. This is due to reduced wind speeds and the fact that thunderstorms tend to dissipate overnight. A smooth (and sleepy) night-flight may therefore be a better option for nervy flyers.

Big planes, smaller bumps

Stephen Slater also highlights that the newer and bigger aircraft are, the better. In recent years, the manufacturers of airliners have expended a great deal of effort in developing control systems and aerodynamic characteristics to enhance their aircrafts’ ride in turbulent conditions. Normally the bigger the aircraft, then better they perform, with the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 the leaders in this respect.

Route planner

Airlines plan their routes to both take advantage of prevailing winds and to avoid known areas of air turbulence, however a lot of turbulence is at lower levels, caused by convection as the sun warms patches of ground beneath and also by the effects wind blowing over of high ground causing waves. Lower level flights such as short-haul, and intercity flights with turboprop aircraft which don’t climb to higher levels are therefore more vulnerable to turbulence. Stephen Slater also highlights that long haul routes that fly over hot areas such as India or the Middle East, might also be affected by convective turbulence from the sun heating the ground and so it can be beneficial to plan a long-haul flight to fly over these areas in the early morning before the sun gets to work.

He also advises that routes over water generally suffer less air turbulence than over land, however there can be turbulence when crossing the Atlantic due to the jet-stream as well as some other ocean areas including the west coast of southern Africa and the Indian Ocean between India and Myanmar/Malaysia.

Stephen Slater of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots is both a pilot and a frequent flyer with a wide range of airlines around the world. He has combined his own personal knowledge with the experience of a number of airline professionals.

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