Terrified Of Turbulence? Flight Turbulence Explained & Coping Strategies

Many people fear flying. Once you get on an airplane, you are committed to it for the duration of your journey; there’s no pulling over and stopping if you get uncomfortable. This feeling of being trapped would put many passengers on edge even if there were no other reasons for fear. Airplane crashes are a Hollywood staple, though, and they’re usually big, newsworthy events. While airplane crashes are much less common than car accidents, the media attention they receive makes them seem like a real threat to many passengers. 

It’s little wonder, then, that airplane turbulence would make so many travelers uneasy. Turbulence can happen without warning, causing a plane to shudder or dip erratically. Items may shift, and passengers might be jostled in their seats. The sudden lift or plummet of an altitude change can cause discomfort in the passengers, and fear is a natural reaction. Fortunately, most cases of turbulence are completely harmless, and there are ways to combat even more serious turbulence to help yourself and your fellow passengers.

What is Flight Turbulence? 

Turbulence occurs when an airplane hits a strong wind current. Like a wave in water, these air currents can push or pull the plane. Most commercial jets fly high enough to avoid most wind patterns, but occasional gusts can occur at any altitude. When this happens, the airplane is buffeted by the wind. It may gain or lose altitude, or it may simply shudder under the strain of the cross-winds.

Air TurbulenceThere are several types and causes of air turbulence that an aircraft may encounter. Most of them are referred to as clear air turbulence because they can occur even when there is no visible weather. This makes them difficult to detect, and pilots may not know they’ll occur until they fly into them:

— Thermals: These are caused by the exchange of rising hot air and sinking cooler air.

— Jet streams: Air currents at high altitudes shift rapidly, which can cause disturbances to the nearby air.

— Mountains: Air may behave differently on one side of a mountain than the other; air turbulence is common when crossing a mountain range.

— Wake turbulence: If the airplane passes by another plane or helicopter, the wake created by the other aircraft can cause turbulence.

— Microbursts: Usually caused by passing storms, these downdrafts are sudden and strong. They can also be caused by other aircraft.

If you think of the sky as a giant lake, turbulence makes more sense. Air behaves much like water. It forms currents, swirls, pushes against mountains and recoils from craft that cross it. Just as a ship may be rocked by the passage of another boat, wake turbulence can be created whenever an aircraft passes through a patch of sky. If you think of air as a liquid, understanding the patterns of air turbulence becomes much simpler.

Is Turbulence Dangerous? 

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence is responsible for 75 percent of all weather-related aircraft crashes. Severe turbulence can structurally damage the airplane and cause the pilot to lose control, which may in turn lead to a crash. Even in airplanes that do not crash, turbulence can still cause accidents. Indeed, it is the primary cause of injury to aircraft passengers and flight attendants.

Recently, a Delta fight attendant sustained injuries when here plane caught severe turbulence before landing in Newark, New Jersey. Another flight on Emirates Airine resulted in injuries for 10 passengers and three members of the flight crew. In both cases, no one who was injured was wearing a seatbelt at the time the turbulence hit.

All the same, turbulence is rarely very serious. Even severe cases of turbulence rarely end in a crash. Pilots are trained to handle clear air turbulence, and they know how to maneuver a plane through even the worst rough patches. Moreover, airplanes are built to be very sturdy and withstand a beating. Even planes that sustain damage will usually continue to fly until the pilot can get them safely on the ground.

How to Handle Flight Turbulence

In all but the most severe turbulence situations, injuries can be avoided by simply wearing your seatbelt and remaining seated during your flight. Nearly every passenger who becomes injured by turbulence sustains those injuries by being thrown about the cabin. Whenever you are seated, be sure to wear your seatbelt even if the flight attendants have said it’s safe to move about the cabin. If you do get up to move around, restrict your movement to necessary routes, like traveling to the bathroom, and pick the nearest lavatory to your seat. Wandering around the airplane stretching your legs can put you at risk from sudden or unexpected turbulence.

Other Tips for Handling Airplane Turbulence: 

— Try to get a seat near the center of the plane. Turbulence is felt more keenly in the tail end and is mildest around the wings.

— Be sure to safely stow away your luggage. If you access the overhead compartment for any reason, be sure it latches. Otherwise, the luggage could break free and inure someone.

— Use the restroom before takeoff. This will reduce your odds of needing it during all but the longest of flights. Also avoid diuretics like coffee, tea and soda; opt for plain water or juice instead.

— Be sure your seatbelt fits comfortably. If it’s too small to latch comfortably, ask the flight attendant for an extender.

If you do hit a patch of turbulence, it’s important to keep calm. Practice deep breathing techniques and relax your muscles. Tension can cause soft tissue injuries if you’re jostled around, and it won’t help you deal with a true emergency any more effectively. As long as you remain calm, wear your seatbelt and follow any instructions given by the pilot and attendants, you should be entirely safe while flying.

Despite the fears that many people have about flying, airplanes are one of the safest ways to travel. Constant improvements in airplane design and the way pilots are trained make flying safer every year. It’s okay to be a little nervous, but arming yourself with knowledge can keep you from being afraid the next time you step onto a plane.

  • Alex

    Terrible article. Didnt help at all!!!!! What were you thinking when writing this???

  • diana

    This article made me feel worse! I just came home from Mexico on a rough Delta flight. I have flown all over the world and now…really do not like it!

  • Kira

    Rebecca, I appreciate your effort to help some travellers like myself. I will study the links. Thank you.

    Some comments on statistics that frustrated certain readers: the bigger plane, the less danger. Majority of weather related crashes happen with small planes, less then 10 passengers. Anyway, if this was such a dangerous way of travelling, no pilots and fly attendants would take the job:))

    Best Regards.

    • http://www.airportparkingreservations.com Rebecca

      Thanks for helping clear up some of the information in the original post, Kira – and great point!

  • Jason

    Seatbelt. Seatbelt. Seatbelt.

    And barf-bag.

  • Mandi

    How the f$%& was this post supposed to help?!
    Including that statistic from the National Transportation Safety Board was not only insensitive, it was downright mean.
    I am seriously considering never using this site to book airport parking ever again.
    Thanks for the “coping strategies” for my flight on Monday.

    • http://www.airportparkingreservations.com Rebecca

      I’m really sorry you feel that way, Mandi. We should have pointed out that the TSA stat includes ALL flight data, not just commercial passenger flights, and turbulence is much more of an issue for smaller planes used for non-passenger flights. Aside from that single piece of data, the point of the post is that turbulence is common and not a significant safety concern. We’ll do a better job next time of explaining any data that might sound alarming. The point is – turbulence is nothing to worry about!

  • Max

    Andy –

    thanks for an informative, technical, clear, easy to read, and useful article!

    Frankly, I was not expecting to see such a good piece of writing from a website specializing in airport parking reservations… Congratulations!

    I have a few comments –

    1. obviously, your advice on selecting the seat in the middle of the plane (close to the wings) cannot be used by all the passengers – someone has to seat in front or in the back. (this reminds me an old joke – it’s been known that the biggest impact from train crashes is sustained by the last cars. So, it’s been suggested to unhook the last car from the train…)

    2. On long flights (longer than ~4-5 hours), continuous sitting in a chair, without stretching or walking, can lead to a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) syndrome, which is dangerous. Here is a link to info on DVT, including preventative measures:



    • Andy Maclean

      Hi Max, you’re welcome and thanks for your comments. You’re right the trade off with staying seated is increased risk of DVT on longer flights. Perhaps we’ll cover DVT in a future post.

  • Catty1

    I am a very phobic flyer, and on my last trip from Las Vagas in April on a Delta flight we ran into some pretty bad turbulence and I was freaking out so bad on the inside I thought I was going to throw up. Thank you, for the infromation on turbulence. Maybe when I fly again this will help to remember this article.


    So did you really think that tell me that According to the National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence is responsible for 75 percent of all weather-related aircraft crashes was going to help me get on the plane this is one email I wish I didnt open before I flew and made a car reservation.

    • http://www.airportparkingreservations.com Rebecca

      Sorry you found this post stressful before your trip, Catherine… While the statistic you mentioned sounds alarming out of context, the real message of the post is that turbulence is very rarely a cause for concern – especially on commercial passenger flights, and knowing more about it can help reduce some of the anxiety it can cause. We hope and trust you’ll have a safe trip!

      • Kira

        I am a fobic flyer as well, but have to fly anyway! Is there any good solution how to handle anxiety besides breathing (doesn’t work for me)? Since flying is apart of modern life, I need to learn how to deal with my panic attacks. Any advice helps! Thanks!

        • http://www.airportparkingreservations.com Rebecca

          Hi Kira!

          I know how you feel – fear of flying is really common, and tough to deal with given that flying is a necessary part of many people’s lives.

          One thing that helps a lot of people is demystifying the experience of flying. There’s a great site that details some of the normal sounds you might hear before, during, and after a flight, and here’s an app that lets you check the “turbulence forecast”, so those shakes and shimmies are a little less surprising.

          For some people, it’s helpful to bring a photo of their destination or the person they’re going to see, to refocus attention away from the flight and on to the reason for it. Definitely skip alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, they can make anxiety worse. Consider bringing a really engrossing book or a favorite tv show or movie on a laptop or tablet – there’s nothing like distraction!

          Finally, check out http://www.flyingwithoutfear.com/ – it’s a great resource for all kinds of information, from helpful books and videos to community forums where you can talk to people who understand how you feel, and find out what did and didn’t work in helping them overcome it.

          I hope that’s helpful – stay in touch and let us know what works for you!