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Why climate change is leading to more aviation disasters – and how the industry must respond

It’s likely that climate change may have played a role in the recent turbulence-related incident involving Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321. (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Archive)
It’s likely that climate change may have played a role in the recent turbulence-related incident involving Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321. (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Archive)

It’s likely that climate change may have played a role in the recent turbulence-related incident involving Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321.

There are reports of increased frequency and intensity of turbulence due to changing wind patterns and airflow caused by global warming.

Most turbulence is not dangerous, but severe turbulence can cause life-changing spinal cord and brain injuries for unrestrained passengers. With severe turbulence becoming more common, and air travel more popular than ever, the aviation industry – including airlines, passengers and insurers - must take notice.

To understand the issue better, it’s important to understand the two main types of severe turbulence: turbulence caused by thunderstorms and “clear air turbulence”.

Thunderstorms

As the planet warms, thunderstorms are becoming more intense. Thunderstorms cause changes in wind strength and air flow leading to turbulence. Masses of air displaced by storm clouds can create turbulence thousands of miles away. Fortunately, turbulence from thunderstorms can generally be identified by weather radar, allowing pilots to avoid them.

Clear Air Turbulence

Clear air turbulence usually occurs at altitudes of 20,000 to 49,000 feet and is caused by wind velocity gradients around the jet stream. It’s harder to detect as it doesn’t show up on weather radar systems, meaning aircraft may more frequently fly into this type of severe turbulence.

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There’s a great deal of research indicating a link between climate change and the frequency of this kind of turbulence. A 2017 study predicted that severe turbulence over the North Atlantic could become two to three times more frequent by 2050-2080 due to climate change. Furthermore, research from Reading University in 2023 found that severe clear air turbulence increased by 55% between 1979 and 2020 in the same region.

Impact on the aviation industry

Although modern aircraft are designed to survive turbulence, the aviation industry still incurs significant wear-and-tear costs, from $150m (£120m) and $500m (£400m) annually. These costs will increase as turbulence becomes more common.

Environmental costs are also a concern. Pilots burn more fuel to avoid turbulence as they may need to divert or change altitude. That means higher carbon emissions and further damage to our environment.

To avoid this, better predictive systems are needed to help airlines plan routes and assess risks before flights have taken off.

Airlines are already looking at how best to tackle these issues. Fifteen airlines, including easyjet and Qatar Airways, are trialling a system which aims to chart “clear air” turbulence in real time and to integrate this into cockpit displays making it easier for pilots to avoid. There has also been increased efforts across the aviation industry on the development of sustainable fuel to mitigate the environmental impact of airline travel, and reduce the environmental impact of increased fuel burn due to turbulence.

Implications for passengers

Increased severity of turbulence means greater risk of injury and trauma. If injured following severe turbulence, passengers are entitled to compensation from a treaty called the Montreal Convention. However, airlines can limit their liability to £135,000 if they can prove they did absolutely nothing wrong. In cases where aircraft encounter unexpected clear air turbulence, this can be a battleground for lawyers.

Severe turbulence can cause life-changing spinal cord and brain injuries for passengers. Claims for these injuries can exceed the Montreal Convention limits by millions of pounds. If the argument can be made that compensation should be limited, it is expected that an insurer will make it.

Increased claims lead to higher insurance premiums for airlines, which inevitably pass to passengers as increased fares.

Even without any claims, more turbulent skies mean more fuel burn and greater operating costs. For passengers, this means increased fares.

However we look at it, turbulent skies likely means increased airfares.

What can be done? Of course, prudent advice is to wear a seatbelt when not moving around the cabin, but for long flights like SQ321, passengers need to move to avoid issues like deep vein thrombosis. We cannot be strapped to our chairs for 13 hours.

Let us hope that better detection systems and sustainable aviation fuel arrive soon. We can put up with the increased flight times.

Peter Neenan is an Aviation lawyer and Partner at Stewarts