Expert says seat belts keep air travellers safe during turbulence

By Nicholas Yong

ONE reason there were not more Singaporeans hurt on the troubled Qantas flight to Perth recently: Most had their seat belts fastened.

Those who did not found themselves tossed around and even stuck to the ceiling when Flight QF72 took two abrupt plunges.

Preliminary investigations suggest that a computer glitch caused the sudden drop in altitude, but the same can happen when an airplane meets turbulence.

Turbulence occurs when weather conditions cause winds in the atmosphere, which usually go in horizontal directions, to move vertically instead, said Dr Todd Lane of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

This produces an unexpected or erratic response in aircraft which fly through these bodies of air.

Dr Lane emphasised that ‘almost everybody who is strapped in (during turbulence) is completely safe’. He estimates that 97 per cent of injuries caused by turbulence can be put down to the fact that the passengers were not strapped in.

Most flights experience some slight turbulence.

Engineer Tan Kok Leong, 37, recounted a flight in the United States eight years ago: ‘It had been quite a smooth flight when the plane plunged suddenly. A few retirees who were chatting at the emergency exit fell to the floor, and they ended up having to crawl back to their seats.’

Pilots can usually prepare passengers for any turbulence ahead, as the pre-flight plan takes into account the weather forecast and known areas of turbulence.

Generally, they try to avoid flying through turbulence by going over, under or around the area, said Captain Jaffar Hassan, 45, who has been flying for almost two decades.

What is hard to avoid is clear-air turbulence, which is often ‘so small and so localised, it’s very difficult to predict’, said Dr Lane, who called this kind of turbulence ‘small scale’ and ‘very transient’.

So is there a safer seat on a plane?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the back is the bumpiest.

‘The perception of airplane shaking …is definitely dependent on location within the cabin,’ said Dr Robert Sharman of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research.

Cabin crew are the most vulnerable, given the nature of their job.

The International Air Transport Association estimates that turbulence-related injuries to cabin crew cost the airline industry over US$60 million (S$90 million) a year.

Former flight stewardess Sheena Chan, 25, recalled an incident that happened while meals were being served.

‘People were scalded because their hot drinks spilt. There was a cart in the galley area which fell to the side and almost hit a steward, but he managed to get out of the way in time,’ she said.

‘Things were flung around and people were lifted off their feet by the force of the drop.’

Airlines recommend that passengers, especially children, keep their seat belts fastened at all times when they are seated, and limit their movement around the aircraft cabin.

SIA spokesman Stephen Forshaw said: ‘The seat belt has to be fastened in such a way that if the aircraft is thrown a few feet up or down, it will pull tight enough to restrain you in your seat.’

Insurance firms told The Straits Times that in cases of injury because of turbulence, the airline may be asked to prove that it took all the necessary precautions to avoid the incident.

Airlines often offer to compensate passengers as an act of good faith in order to resolve the issue, they said.

nicy@sph.com.sg