The Calculators of Calm
Just how far out of their way will airlines go to give you a smooth ride?
- By Willilam Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, March 2005
(Page 2 of 6)
According to statistics compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board, between 1987 and 2000, only two fatal accidents (involving one death each) aboard U.S. commercial airliners were attributed to turbulence, and the phenomenon is believed to have caused the crash of just one U.S. airliner—some 40 years ago—mostly because the pilots failed to respond properly when severe winds struck.
While the majority of encounters with turbulence are not lethal, rough air wreaks havoc on the airline industry. “Probably the least of our worries is that the airplane is going to fall out of the sky,” says Lou Andelmo, a dispatcher for U.S. Airways. “It’s the injuries we’re most worried about.” Turbulence is the leading cause of nonfatal passenger and crew injuries, which result in work time losses as well as overtime paid to other crews to fill in. Passenger injuries can also result in lawsuits and settlements. And if a turbulence encounter is severe enough, Federal Aviation Administration rules mandate the airline conduct an immediate, unscheduled (i.e., costly) inspection of the aircraft for damage or stress before the airplane can return to service.
Turbulence can result in so many kinds of financial losses that exact numbers are hard to come by, but the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a government-industry partnership, has been trying to ascertain and understand costs associated with turbulence as part of an overall mission to study air travel safety. According to Sherry Borener, an analyst at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, CAST found that, among other things, an unscheduled inspection coupled with one day of out-of-service costs totals about $24,000 per incident. A diversion to another airport because of turbulence costs anywhere between $25,000 and $150,000, depending on the airline and the number of passengers affected. Estimates of losses due to delays and cancellations run as high as $866 million a year.
Flight attendants, who spend most of their time on their feet, are most vulnerable to injuries. Northwest Airlines has even produced a training video based on a recent incident in which one of its flights approached an area of reported severe turbulence: Following a request from the cockpit, passengers and crew were returning to their seats to buckle up when a flight attendant noticed that a door in the galley had an open latch. Behind the door was a rack that could have spilled onto another crew member if the turbulence was rough enough. Just as the attendant stood to lock the latch, a violent downdraft slammed the aircraft; the attendant was knocked to the ceiling, and injured her head and arm.
Candace Kolander, the Association of Flight Attendants’ coordinator for air safety, health, and security, says that in 1996, the most recent year for which she has data, in one airline, flight attendants reported 310 turbulence-related injuries, resulting in more than 3,500 lost work days. These are only reported injuries. The CAST study estimates that for every reported injury, more than 15 go unreported; reported injuries alone cost the industry approximately $26 million a year.
And then there are the costs incurred when a passenger sues because of an injury. Darryl Jenkins, a visiting professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, who has researched flight-related insurance and litigation issues, says that while airlines will contest some claims, court costs and the chance of bad publicity often force them to settle. In the mid- to late 1990s, he says, “it cost about $30,000 to settle the average claim.” CAST’s summary of findings states that litigation costs have “dramatically increased,” with one recent settlement reaching $10 million.
According to Borener, CAST has estimated that from 1988 to 2001, turbulence cost the industry $31 billion. That number doesn’t include costs nearly impossible to calculate: After a bad encounter with turbulence, people who are generally fearful of flying may get on airplanes even less; other passengers, angry that they got no food service while the aircraft was bouncing and lurching, may refuse to fly the airline again. Occasionally, however, the consequences of a rough flight can be known precisely: In 1999, American Airlines shelled out $2 million to a group of 13 passengers who convinced the court that their flight crew’s failure to take steps such as lighting the “Fasten seat belt” sign in advance of storm-related turbulence caused “psychological distress,” because the passengers thought they were going to die.
Turbulence comes in two forms: convective and clear air. The first involves updrafts and downdrafts created by hot rising air and cool, moist falling air—both of which you find in and around thunderstorms. Fortunately, moisture reflects on weather radar, making convective turbulence visible and somewhat predictable. Storms can also cause clear air turbulence, but CAT, as meteorologists call it, usually manifests itself in the jet stream—the west-to-east winds that gust just below the tropopause (the separation between the troposphere—the lower portion of the atmosphere where “weather” happens—and the stratosphere, at roughly 30,000 to 35,000 feet over the continental U.S.). One of the big causes of CAT is the phenomenon known as mountain waves: surface winds that hit mountains and then swirl upward, sometimes for miles, in powerful gusts.