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Accidents on US airlines have become rare except for one category of in-flight mishap that has remained stubbornly prevalent: turbulence that leads to serious injuries.

More than 65% of severe injuries — or 28 of 43 — logged by US investigators from 2017 until 2020 on airliners resulted from planes encountering bumpy skies, triggered by atmospheric conditions that could be worsening due to climate change.

Because they have to be on their feet far more than passengers, flight attendants are the most vulnerable, according to US National Transportation Safety Board data. They have been slammed off ceilings, walls and floors, suffering broken vertebrae and other fractured bones as well as head injuries.

“This is a major source of occupational injury,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, said. “Addressing the issues with turbulence has been an issue for us for a long time.”

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday is releasing a safety study identifying trends and a series of recommendations for how the Federal Aviation Administration and air carriers can help prevent them.

The report comes as evidence is growing that global warming is increasing the risks of jets encountering air turbulence. A 2019 study in the journal Nature found wind shear — sudden changes in wind speed or direction — had increased 15% over the North Atlantic since 1979.

The US skies have enjoyed an unprecedented period of safety for more than a decade. There have been only two US passenger deaths since 2009, a woman on a Southwest Airlines flight on which an engine blew apart and a man on a small turboprop plane in Alaska who was hit by a broken propeller blade.

The industry has essentially wiped out entire categories of crashes, such as those caused by icing and wind-shear. But turbulence, which can buffet a jet even in clear skies and has proved difficult to accurately predict, has been far tougher to contain.

A February 13, 2019, Delta Air Lines flight from Orange County, California, to Seattle is typical.

Pilots on the northbound flight, operated by Delta partner Compass Airlines, kept the seat-belt sign illuminated because of an earlier report of “occasional light chop” but allowed flight attendants to begin serving drinks. The Embraer SA ERJ 175 hit a band of severe turbulence that lasted eight seconds. Two flight attendants were flung into the ceiling and back down to the floor.

One of the two attendants broke her arm. A passenger who had been in the lavatory on the flight also suffered a head wound.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which sets safety rules and whose air traffic controllers guide airline flights, has been working on multiple fronts to reduce the risk, it said. It is developing a system to allow pilots to share turbulence reports digitally, for example.

Since many injuries occur at lower altitudes, the government and industry should look at requiring attendants to be seated for longer periods during those conditions, Nelson said.

Increasing communication about existing weather conditions would help, Nelson said. Airlines should improve how they share information with each other and between pilots and flight attendants, she said. “There needs to be greater emphasis when information changes in the air.” 

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


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