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Singapore Airlines plane hit by severe turbulence: Is climate change impacting your flight journey? Know here

A London-bound Singapore Airlines flight was hit by a 'sudden extreme turbulence' on Tuesday, causing the death of a 73-year-old British man while 30 others were injured. The Boeing 777 flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Singapore had 211 passengers and 18 crew members aboard.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Singapore Published on: May 22, 2024 15:08 IST
Singapore Airlines, mid-air turbulence
Image Source : REUTERS The Singapore Airlines aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in Bangkok.

Singapore: A Singapore Airlines flight was hit by a 'sudden extreme turbulence' on Tuesday, forcing it to make an emergency landing in Bangkok. Chaos emerged as the aircraft descended 6,000 feet in about three minutes, culminating in the death of a 73-year-old British national while 30 others were injured, according to reports.

There were at least three Indian nationals among the 229 people aboard the Singapore Airlines flight that encountered a "sudden extreme turbulence" over the Irrawaddy Basin at 37,000 feet, the flag carrier of Singapore said. Suvarnabhumi Airport general manager Kittipong Kittikachorn told a press conference that Geoffrey Kitchen, the British man, died during the incident, likely due to a heart attack, while head injuries were sustained among seven people critically injured. A crew member was hospitalised.

The Boeing 777 flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Singapore, with 211 passengers and 18 crew members aboard, landed at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, the airline said in a Facebook post. Emergency medical crews rushed to help the passengers. The airline said it is fully cooperating with relevant authorities to investigate the turbulence that hit the London-bound flight.

"Singapore Airlines offers its deepest condolences to the family of the deceased. We deeply apologise for the traumatic experience that our passengers and crew members suffered on this flight. We are providing all necessary assistance during this difficult time. We are working with our colleagues and the local authorities in Thailand to provide the necessary assistance," said the airline. The incident has prompted questions as to whether climate change is impacting flight journeys across the world.

Are these turbulences common?

Although such deaths are rare, experts have warned that climate change may lead to more extreme cases of turbulences. However, turbulences on flight journeys are not uncommon. Out of millions upon millions of flights, turbulence has caused 185 serious injuries from 2009 to 2023, NBC News reported citing the National Transportation Safety Board.

At least 129 crew members and 34 passengers were injured in the reported incidents between 2009 and 2022. Turbulence-related deaths can be caused by heart attacks or head injuries if a passenger’s head strikes the ceiling or gets hit by falling luggage, according to Larry Cornman, a physicist and project scientist with the US National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Additionally, almost every flight experiences turbulence in various forms. If an aircraft is taking off or landing behind another aircraft, the wind generated by the engine and wingtips of the lead aircraft can cause “wake turbulence” for the one behind, highlighted a report from Down To Earth. There may also be turbulence due to strong winds associated with weather patterns moving through the area. 

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said initial reports appear to indicate that the Singapore flight encountered clear-air turbulence, which is the most dangerous type because it cannot be seen and is virtually undetectable with current technology. "One second, you’re cruising smoothly. The next, passengers, crew and unsecured carts or other items are being thrown around the cabin," Nelson said.

How does climate change impact flights?

A 2023 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that severe clear-air turbulence increased by at least 50 per cent over the North Atlantic Ocean from 1979 to 2020. The rise in such turbulences has been attributed to the effect of climate change on wind speeds in the upper levels of the atmosphere, researchers found. 

“Moderate turbulence increased by 37 per cent, and light turbulence increased by 17 per cent during this period. (Turbulence in) Other flight routes over the US, Europe, the Middle East, and the South Atlantic also significantly increased, said the research. Experts have called for an urgent need for better investments in radar systems and forecasting for air travel, highlighting that emission cuts can reduce the impact of global warming

The study also revealed that some of the most prominent increases in clear-air turbulences in recent decades occurred over mid-altitude regions over areas like the North Atlantic and flight routes over the US. These results have suggested that global warming may be driving instability in the jet stream, the fast-moving air encompassing the Northern Hemisphere, according to Mark Prosser, co-author of the study and a doctoral researcher.

That instability is expected to increase as the world warms further in the future. As per some reports, the effect of global warming can increase instances of clear-air turbulence by up to 200 per cent by 2050. The researchers found that increasing greenhouse gas emissions also increased turbulence and instability.

What can be done?

As per Down To Earth, technology to detect turbulence is still in its nascent phase, so pilots have to use the knowledge they gain from weather radars to determine the best course of action and avoid weather patterns with high levels of moisture that affect the flight journey. As researchers have said, there is an urgent need for upgraded radar systems for aerial travel.

Meteorological centres based on the ground also observe weather patterns developing with the assistance of satellites to provide real-time information to flight crews, so that they know the weather to expect throughout their flight. Greater awareness among passengers is also required in flights that experience turbulence. While deaths due to cardiac arrest are usually beyond control, not heeding the plane's 'fasten seatbelt' sign can result in fatal head injuries.

(with inputs from AP)

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