Killer turbulence sees more airlines embrace data-driven mindset

After the Singapore Airlines Ltd. incident last month, which resulted in one death and scores of injuries, airlines are showing a greater level of interest in IATA’s turbulence-awareness programme. This data collection system helps pilots navigate difficult weather in real-time.

IATA launched Turbulence Aware in 2018 to assist airlines in reducing the impact of turbulence. It is the leading cause of injuries for passengers and crew in the air. Nick Careen, the leader of the airline body’s safety, security, and operations work, stated that 21 airlines currently feed data into the program. IATA also has a goal to collect turbulence report from 150 million flights before the end of 2024.

There are discussions with a number of airlines. Careen stated that there has been a greater interest. “More data and information will improve the situation.”

On May 21, Flight SQ321 was on its way from London to Singapore when it encountered severe turbulent conditions as it entered Thai airspace. The Boeing Co 777 made an emergency landing at Bangkok. One passenger was killed and many others were hospitalised for serious head, neck, and spinal injuries. Singapore Air reported that as of June 3, 21 passengers were still being treated at Bangkok clinics.

A few days later, 12 passengers were injured when a Qatar Airways plane was hit by severe turbulence in Turkey.

Singapore Air now has tighter restrictions in the cabin during turbulence. However, they have not yet mandated that passengers wear seatbelts throughout the flight. In addition, hot drinks will no longer be served in the air when the seatbelt signal is activated. The crew will return to their seats, and buckle themselves up.

Seatbelts can save lives

Careen, when asked if the recent events had discouraged people from traveling by plane, said that he did not think so. “That says volumes about the fact that people know and believe that this industry’s safe.”

He added that “if seatbelts are so important in cars, then why wouldn’t they be the same for airlines?”

The IATA annual meeting, held in Dubai, this week, also included a discussion on the topic of turbulence and its impact on climate change.

Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General, said that he does not believe there is a growing problem of turbulence. He believes there are simply more flights. This year there will be 39 million flights as opposed to the 20 million in 2000 and 2001. He said: “I’ve been a pilot for over 20 years. It’s not like turbulence just appeared.”

Even with the alarming headlines, social media posts and airline procedures, the airlines are reviewing their procedures and paying greater attention to this issue.

Cho Won Tae, chief executive officer of Korean Air Lines Co, said that the company is giving crews more time to prepare before landing in order for them to “be at their seats during critical moments”.

Common Sense

Emirates President Tim Clark stated that “there was a greater attention paid to all this” and “the industry will begin being more concerned about the fact that people are in seats and are buckled in”.

IndiGo is also testing new software that will help it manage turbulence. The Indian airline reminded passengers to fasten their seatbelts throughout the flight and especially during turbulence.

The best advice, however, is common sense.

Carsten Spohr, CEO of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, said: “I have flown for many years and also as a Pilot, I can tell you that you should always wear your seatbelt.” Look at the cockpit any time during the flight. The pilots are wearing seatbelts. I recommend that we all do the same.”

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