The death of Singapore Airlines: Is climate change making turbulence worse? | Aviation news

Jeff Kitchen was on his way to a six-week holiday through South Asia and Australia with his wife, Linda. Ten hours into the flight and in the middle of breakfast service, Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 from London to Singapore dropped 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) in minutes.

The Boeing 777-300ER carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew members made an emergency landing in Bangkok. Kitchen went into cardiac arrest and eventually died. At least 71 others were infected and 20 people remain in intensive care units in Bangkok.

But how often do such injuries and deaths occur, what is atmospheric turbulence, and is it getting worse – and does climate change play a role in all of this?

How often does air travel lead to injuries?

Compared to the millions of flights that take to the skies each year (40.1 million expected for 2024), what happened on SQ321 is rare.

In the United States, the world’s largest air travel market, there were only 163 infections between 2009 and 2022 that required hospitalization, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The National Transportation Safety Board did not report a single turbulence-related death on board a large aircraft in that period.

It’s also almost unheard of for turbulence to bring down an airplane, let alone a commercial airliner. Although a plane crashed in 2001, it was due to a technical error and not directly related to turbulence.

This was American Airlines Flight 587 from JFK Airport in New York to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The NTSB confirmed that turbulence caused the plane’s vertical stabilizer to fail.

What causes the disorder?

Turbulence is basically turbulence in the air and there are several different types and reasons for it to occur. Terrain such as mountains can alter airflow and the air is forced to rise above the natural terrain which can cause waves of air that create turbulence.

While weather events can affect turbulence as well, the event that causes the most concern is called a clear air turbulence, or CAT.

“It could be caused by so-called gravitational waves that cause ripples in the air that you can’t see. The only way pilots know about it is to hear about it from a former pilot. Pilots often listen to what a person who took the same flight path says a few minutes before. “This is the best way to detect these turbulent events,” Ramalingam Saravanan, head of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, told Al Jazeera.

Have instances of turbulence increased – and is climate change to blame?

A study from the University of Reading in England published last year found that between 1979 and 2020, clear-air turbulence rose by 55 percent over the North Atlantic, one of the world’s busiest aviation routes. Warmer temperatures can affect wind patterns. The report confirms that greenhouse gas emissions are largely to blame.

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This was echoed by researchers at the University of Chicago, who predicted that rising temperatures could lead to increased wind speeds in the “fastest upper-level jet stream.”

The study indicates that speeds will increase by 2 percent for every degree Celsius that the world warms, and are expected to increase by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if greenhouse gases continue to rise at the same level.

Global temperature has risen by at least 1.1°C since the pre-industrial era. During that period, it was the largest increase since 1975, according to NASA.

Researchers from the University of Chicago say that because of the expected record wind speeds, airlines will need to slow speeds to reduce the safety impacts of turbulence.

Disturbances are expected to increase dramatically in the North Atlantic – the main route between North America and Europe, but there is also a huge increase expected in southeastern China, the western Pacific, and northern India. A 2021 study by Nanjing University in China predicted a 15 percent increase in CAT cases by 2059.

The surge in the Asia-Pacific region is a growing concern for the aviation industry. China is expected to overtake the United States as the largest air travel market by passenger volume by 2037.

The interior of Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 after an emergency landing in Bangkok [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Who is most affected when planes experience turbulence?

Turbulence problems are more about the safety of the people on board than the plane itself, and often occur when passengers and flight crew are not properly compliant.

Flight crew account for 79 percent of all turbulence-related injuries.

“Turbulence is a serious workplace safety issue for flight attendants,” Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, said in a statement.

“While details of Singapore Flight 321 are still developing, initial reports appear to indicate clear-air turbulence, the most dangerous type of turbulence. It is invisible and almost undetectable with current technology. One second, you’re sailing smoothly,” Nelson added: “In The next day, passengers, crew members, unlocked vehicles or other items are thrown around the cabin.”

Does air turbulence affect airline profits?

Although turbulence-related disasters are rare, turbulence costs the aviation industry up to $500 million annually. This includes damage to the aircraft and its cabins, delay and incidental liability payments. As it becomes more common in the coming years, costs will rise.

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Under the 1999 Montreal Convention, airlines are also financially liable for injuries sustained on board due to turbulence including damage to baggage as well as personal injury and even death.

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“The agreement specifies the jurisdictions in which the plaintiffs involved can file their cases, and that will vary based on an analysis of each passenger’s actual situation. Aviation, told Al Jazeera: “They are entitled to full compensatory economic compensation.”

Airlines have an obligation to pay affected consumers with so-called Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs. This is a reserve asset created by the International Monetary Fund and, depending on the nationality of those affected, can be exchanged for their own currency.

Thanks to the Montreal Convention, airlines have to pay assets unless they can prove that the injury was the result of passenger negligence. The specific policy can vary slightly depending on the carrier on which travelers travel.

Singapore Airlines says in its terms of service that:

“There are no monetary limits for death or bodily injury. For damages up to 113,100 SDR [the equivalent of US$149,720.22 today]The carrier may not appeal compensation claims. Above this amount, the carrier can defend itself against the claim by proving that it was not negligent or at fault.

Airlines often settle out of court on such matters, according to Sanger, who has helped dozens of clients in such cases.

But these lawsuits put a burden on airlines because the industry has fairly tight margins, meaning every dollar counts. In December, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade organization representing airlines around the world, touted what it expected to be record profits this year with a profit margin of 2.7 percent, while still noting how tight that profit margin was.

“Industry profits must be put in perspective. Although the recovery is impressive, the net profit margin of 2.7 percent is far lower than what investors accept,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, in a December 2023 statement. In almost any other industry.”

In comparison, the railway industry has a profit margin of up to 50%.

“On average, airlines will keep just $5.45 for each passenger they carry. That’s enough to buy a basic ‘large latte’ at a Starbucks in London. But it’s not so easy to build a shock-resilient future for the industry,” Walsh added. Important global.

Airlines are subject to significant fluctuations in jet fuel prices that can sometimes account for up to 25 percent of industry expenses. Airlines must also take into account what is called the “load factor” when determining profitability. This is basically the formula that tells how full a flight is, what the fares are and how expensive the tickets need to be in order to make money.

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In 2020, Forbes reported that to break even, airlines need to have a load factor between 72.5 percent and 78.9 percent. As of January 2024, the average load factor was 78.4 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

What does the Singapore Airlines accident mean for Boeing?

But the weather disruptions come along with a turbulent time for the airline industry and especially one of the two major plane makers, Boeing.

A series of high-profile accidents involving Boeing planes, and consumers’ instinctive reaction to the news, seem to attribute blame to the plane maker rather than any other factor. Many users on X say they are to choose no Fly on Boeing-Making planes when they travel.

“It doesn’t really matter whether the plane manufacturer or the airline had anything to do with the accident. When it comes to brands… consumer perception is what matters most. It’s the consumer perception that matters most,” said Andrew Graham, founder and chief strategy officer at public relations firm Bread & Law in New York City. “The perception now is that Boeing makes unsafe planes.”

In January, a panel exploded mid-flight on an Alaska Airlines 737-MAX9 between Portland, Oregon, and Ontario, California. In response, the airline grounded all 65 Boeing Max 9 aircraft in its fleet. In March, a United Airlines plane between Denver and Paris was forced to change course after an engine failure. In April, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 bound for Los Angeles from New York’s JFK Airport was forced to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff because an emergency ramp disintegrated.

Against this backdrop, only 9% of consumers trust Boeing, according to a March Morning Consult poll. Booking platforms like Kayak have now added features that allow consumers to search for flights by aircraft manufacturer.

When Boeing’s safety record came into question, several whistleblowers were found dead.

Despite the image issues, when it comes to Wall Street, most major companies have yet to downgrade the stock. This suggests that Wall Street is not concerned about the plethora of issues facing Boeing in the eyes of the general consumer public.

“I think a lot of the bad news is factored in…and if they start with a positive surprise about quality improvements in production, you can start to see it go the other way,” said Bert Sobin, senior research analyst at Stifel Financial Corp. , to Al Jazeera.

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