Lately, at airport gates and security lines, I’m increasingly hearing other frequent fliers share stories of spilled coffee and sudden drops on planes. Threaded through nearly every conversation are questions about whether there has been an upswing in air turbulence, and whether climate change is to blame.
Turbulence was never a concern for Ashwin Fernandes, who takes more than 200 flights per year as regional director to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia for Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, until a bad flight in 2013 left him spooked.
“We were over the Bay of Bengal during monsoon season and the plane started shaking violently and then dropped suddenly,” he recounts. “I didn’t know what to do, except wonder how much worse it would get and when it would end.”
Since then, Mr. Fernandes has followed a strict set of self-imposed rules, which includes taking daytime flights whenever possible. Red-eye flights, he says, can be more anxiety-provoking because of fatigue. But one question continues to haunt him: Is global warming making the skies less friendly?
Maybe, but only at certain altitudes, said Paul D. Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, who is the co-developer of a turbulence-forecasting algorithm that has helped make flight travel more comfortable by avoiding rough air and greener by reducing carbon dioxide emissions via “low turbulence” routes.
“Climate change is altering temperature patterns and wind speeds in the upper atmosphere,” he says. “The main consequence for aviation is an increase in clear-air turbulence, or in-flight bumpiness at high altitudes in regions devoid of significant cloudiness or nearby thunderstorms, as the jet stream becomes more unstable.”
But severe turbulence, the kind that causes passengers who aren’t wearing their seatbelts to defy gravity and lift up from their seats, remains a very rare occurrence.
“Only around 0.1 percent of the atmosphere at flight cruising levels contains severe turbulence, so even if that figure were to double or treble because of climate change, severe turbulence will still be very rare,” Dr. Williams says, also offering grounds for optimism. “Hopefully, a combination of improved turbulence forecasts and better technology will reduce the number of aircraft encountering turbulence in the future, despite the effects of climate change.”
The takeaway is to remain buckled throughout the flight, as is routinely instructed by the cockpit crew before takeoff. Airlines want passengers to be comfortable throughout the journey, which is the main reason for avoiding turbulence. Cargo planes, filled with packages instead of people, on the other hand, tend to stay the course even when the air is rough.
“No matter how scary it might feel, our pilots are in control and there is no question of structural integrity,” explains Rich Terry, a captain and managing director of fleet support for Delta Air Lines. “Modern aircraft are developed and tested to sustain any level of conceivable turbulence.”
Captain Terry says the easiest way to make sense of turbulence is to think about ocean waves cresting and falling. “That same movement happens in the air, so now picture those same movements throughout the atmosphere. When airplanes intersect those waves, you have turbulence.”
In other words, it’s a natural occurrence and should be expected – not dreaded. Learn to go with the flow.
“Expect, accept, allow” is the self-regulating advice offered by Martin N. Seif, a psychologist with private practices in New York and Connecticut who co-founded the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and is a co-author of “What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders” and “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.”
When experiencing turbulence, Dr. Seif suggests replacing “what if” thoughts with “what is” thoughts. “Stay present,” he advises. “Anxiety is fuelled by catastrophic thoughts and is maintained by attempts to avoid it.”
Ashley Nicholls, who frequently flies around the Northeast with her Vermont-based marketing and communications firm, says that when the going gets rough, she distracts herself with math – subtracting from 100 by three’s. “By the time I get to 1, the bumps are done. If they aren’t, I start over.”
What about preparing in advance for turbulence by monitoring weather reports and checking the latest phone apps for flight conditions? Both Mr. Fernandes and Ms. Nicholls believe that this may help to keep the element of surprise at bay, but Dr. Seif disagrees.
“All that stuff reinforces anxiety and puts the focus on the need to avoid turbulence,” he warns. “The best thing you can do is nothing.”
Adam Bluestein, a freelance journalist, grew weary of his worries over weather and decided to rewrite the script in his head. Previously reliant on an array of spiritual talismans – a Ganesh necklace, a tiny Buddha statue, a pouch of crystals, and 36 cents wrapped in a piece of aluminum foil as a Jewish blessing for life – Mr. Bluestein found a better way to check in and zone out.
He embarked on a cognitive behavioral therapy of his own design, which included educating himself in the laws of space and physics, and then flying to Thailand to re-establish his sense of courage. The outcome was a complete reset of his mental state. He no longer obsesses about what’s out of his control. Letting go, he knows, is the biggest obstacle for anxious fliers.
“Now I go up with a calmer state of mind. I observe what’s happening, I don’t react. When I see the wings bend, I know that’s what they are meant to do,” he says, also crediting yoga for helping him “muster of a sense of detachment” even in turbulence.
“Recently, I was on a 747 from Amsterdam, in a middle seat, when out of nowhere, the plane dropped by what seemed like 100 feet and my arms flew up,” he says. “When things like that happen now, it causes me to feel a greater calm because I’ve spent so much time working on it. I like when there’s stuff going on. It’s almost reassuring.
Ultimately, Mr. Bluestein landed on what could be the most grounding response to turbulent skies I’ve encountered: “It’s not about me.”