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Can airlines, officials better forecast severe turbulence to help avoid it?

Click to play video: 'Can airlines, officials better forecast severe turbulence to help avoid it?'
Can airlines, officials better forecast severe turbulence to help avoid it?
WATCH: Can airlines, officials better forecast severe turbulence to help avoid it? – May 28, 2024

After at least 12 people were injured on Sunday when a Qatar Airways flight hit turbulence, questions continue to mount on the rough air’s impact on travel and what’s being done by airlines and other officials to better predict it.

The Qatar flight had left Doha en route to Dublin when it hit turbulence, with the airline saying: “a small number of passengers and crew sustained minor injuries in flight and are now receiving medical attention.”

It marked the second turbulence-related event resulting in injury within a week, following the Singapore Airlines incident on May 21. And it’s expected that the severity of turbulence will only get worse with climate change.

While technology is getting better at predicting these rough patches of air, some experts say there’s more to be done.

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How does turbulence happen?

Turbulence is the irregular motion of the air, resulting from eddies and vertical currents, according to the National Weather Service, and usually comes from heavy storms or flying over mountain ranges.

What can be difficult, if not impossible to avoid, is what’s known as clear air turbulence, often found in or near the high-altitude rivers of air called jet streams. The culprit is ‘wind shear’, when two huge air masses close to each other move at difference speeds. If that’s big enough, the atmosphere is unable to handle the strain and it breaks into turbulent patterns.

“Clear air turbulence means there’s no clouds, there’s no point of reference, there is nothing that shows you visually or on your instruments that there is an indication of severe upset of the air in front of you,” McGill University faculty lecturer in aviation management John Gradek told Global News Monday.

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Click to play video: 'Turbulence cases appear to be soaring globally, so how can you stay safe?'
Turbulence cases appear to be soaring globally, so how can you stay safe?

How is the industry working to predict and prevent turbulence?

Aside from clear-air turbulence, which can be difficult to avoid, some of the most common turbulence comes from thunderstorms or air around mountain — both of which can sometimes be avoided by flying around them.

What often helps this is that pilots are getting information not just from sources like weather radar both on board the plane and on the ground, but through reports from air traffic control that have been received by other planes.

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“Over the last 20 years, in particular, aircraft fitted with far more sophisticated radar called MultiScan … gives a really good picture of what the weather is like ahead,” AirlineRatings.com analyst Geoffrey Thomas told Reuters. “Also, airlines are now sharing data between aircraft of encounters with turbulence so everybody can be advised that’s on that same flight track.”

Click to play video: 'Turbulence on Qatar Airways flight to Dublin leaves 12 injured'
Turbulence on Qatar Airways flight to Dublin leaves 12 injured

Personal knowledge from pilots can also help avoid rough skies, such as knowing where areas of high turbulence may be, Gradek said, meaning they can take precautions to ensure safely.

“They will keep that seatbelt sign (on). Even though you may not be experiencing any turbulence at that point, they’ll keep it on because they said we might be getting something,” he said.

Airlines have various ways they tackle rough air.

Canadian airline WestJet told Global News in an email it too works to avoid turbulence, with flight planning teams utilizing multiple weather sources to plan the best possible flight path. As well, the airline said crews are provided with updated turbulence and weather reports through air traffic control and operations control centre.

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Airlines are also taking note of incidents like the Singapore Airlines flight last week that left dozens injured, with that airline itself adjusting its own procedures including stopping meal service when the seat belt sign is turned on and altering at least one of its flight routes.

But while there are some policies in place now and technology is getting better at turbulence detection, Gradek says there’s more to do.

“It’s the final frontier,” Gradek said.

“We somehow have to penetrate much further ahead, the state of airspace we’re going into and understand not just the current state of that airspace but the future state of that airspace that when I finally hit that with my aircraft, I know what the condition of that airspace is going to be like.”

In the meantime, experts who spoke to Global News say air travellers still have a tool to stay safe when their plane hits turbulence — wear your seatbelt.

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