How Dangerous Is Turbulence?

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At least 10 passengers needed hospital treatment after extreme turbulence affected a flight from Athens to Philadelphia this weekend. Those 10 people have all been released from hospital, according to ABC News, but should turbulence be something to worry about?

Turbulence is the most common form of air injury and around 58 people in the U.S. are injured this way every year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. However, among the 298 injuries, three of them fatal, the FAA attributes to turbulence between 1980 to 2008, 184 of those affected flight attendants and 114 affected passengers. In other words, a bumpy flight is nothing to be scared of, British Airways captain Steve Allright told the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph. “Every day I fly, I expect a small amount of turbulence, just as I’d expect the odd bump in the road on the drive to work,” he said.

Flight crews have a scale of severity for turbulence: light, moderate, severe and extreme. Moderate turbulence does not scare pilots, according to Allright, who also said extreme turbulence is rare but not dangerous. “In a flying career of over 10,000 hours, I have experienced severe turbulence for about five minutes in total,” he said.

Pilots, however, “don’t get more than a general warning” about turbulence, retired US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger told USA Today. While flying, pilots must rely on reports from other aircraft and then consider whether they can adjust their altitude to avoid areas of reported turbulence.

The best way for passengers to stay safe is to wear a seatbelt. Of the three fatalities between 1980 and 2008 in U.S. carriers due to turbulence, according to the FAA, at least two of these passengers weren’t fastened in. “Keeping your seatbelt fastened is cheap insurance,” Sullenberger said.

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