Edited by: Jessica Merritt
& Keri Stooksbury
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You’ve finally found a comfortable position scrunched up in your tiny plane seat, so you close your eyes for a much-needed nap. Then, out of nowhere, you feel the plane begin to move. Your eyes pop open, and the pilot comes over the loudspeaker, telling you to fasten your seatbelt. The plane begins to bump, sway, or even drop suddenly, making you feel nauseous, nervous, scared, or just downright uncomfortable.
Sound familiar? This is turbulence.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research states that turbulence occurs in around 65,000 flights annually. About 5,500 of them report severe turbulence. Uncomfortable, often unexpected, and part of flying, turbulence is something most travelers have dealt with in the past.
But what if avoiding turbulence could all come down to just picking the right seat? In this article, we’ll dig into more about what causes turbulence, types of turbulence, where to sit on a place for the smoothest ride, and more to help you get the best odds for avoiding those bumps. We also spoke to some experts to understand more about turbulence and how to deal with turbulence anxiety.
Turbulence is irregular air movement. Various conditions, like atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts, or thunderstorms, can all cause turbulence, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Turbulence can even occur when the sky seems clear. These conditions can cause the airplane to move, bump, pitch, and drop, which can be uncomfortable and, occasionally, really scary for passengers.
Turbulence comes in various categories: light, moderate, severe, and extreme. One can measure turbulence using the Eddy Dissipation Rate (EDR), which describes its intensity. In most cases, severe or extreme turbulence is rare, but it can happen. But flyers shouldn’t be worried, as pilots are usually unfazed by turbulence and do everything possible to fly the aircraft into smoother skies.
Many factors can cause turbulence. According to the National Weather Service, wind, heat and thermal currents, friction between air masses, and jet streams can cause turbulence. Thunderstorms or mountains can influence these causes, so the plane may bump more during stormy weather or when flying over mountain ranges. There’s also clear air turbulence, which can occur suddenly even though the weather and sky seem clear.
We spoke to a pilot of a major U.S. airline (who wishes to remain anonymous) for some information about turbulence. “Wake turbulence is caused by another aircraft and the lift that its wings give. It agitates the air, and if another airplane is behind it, this plane will move,” they explained.
Clear air turbulence is usually unexpected or sudden in a cloud-free, stormless sky.
“Clear air turbulence is usually associated with the jet stream movements in the higher levels of the atmosphere, around the tropopause,” the pilot told Upgraded Points. “Those movements are associated with seasons and the amount of sun that the region of the earth receives (sorry, flat earthers!). Differences in temperature cause differences in pressure and make air flow.”
There’s also turbulence associated with weather fronts caused by convective activity, also known as storms.
The pilot told us that sitting close to the center of gravity, like over the wing, is the best place to sit on a plane to feel less turbulence, though it depends on the aircraft and the day’s load.
Charlie Page, Upgraded Points writer and pilot of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A320, echoed this sentiment. “[In] the back of the aircraft, when the wind hits the tail, you’re going to feel more bumps.” Page recommends sitting in the front if you’ve got the points to spend or over the wings where there’s less flex.
We spoke to a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline (who wishes to remain anonymous) who said it’s best to sit closer to the front of the aircraft. “Anything in the back has a much more fishtailing, isolating effect,” they said.
So, if you’re wondering where to sit on a plane for the smoothest ride, book seats up front or over the wing for less turbulence.Hot Tip:
Sitting in the window, aisle, or middle seat doesn’t affect turbulence. However, sitting in the aisle may make a nervous or claustrophobic flyer feel like they have a bit more space. Likewise, a window seat may help reassure flyers that the aircraft isn’t falling out of the sky or simply distract them with a view.
First of all, it’s worth noting that companies build modern aircraft to withstand even the most severe turbulence situations and extreme weather conditions. Turbulence doesn’t cause plane crashes, and according to NPR, most damage incurred on a plane from turbulence isn’t from the turbulence but from objects falling from the overhead bins or food carts going awry.
According to the pilot we spoke to, heavier or larger airplanes feel less turbulence, and things like wake turbulence can be avoided. “Pilots count on the use of time and distance for separation between different sizes of aircraft due to the amount of wake turbulence that they can produce and how it affects the sequencing aircraft,” they said.
Flying a widebody aircraft, like a Boeing 777 or an Airbus A380, may mean flyers will feel less turbulence, at least when turbulence is light to moderate. “It does feel a little less intense when on a widebody due to the size and mass, but during more severe turbulence, it doesn’t matter,” the flight attendant told us.
The worst seats on an airplane for turbulence are the jump seats in the back of the plane, where the flight attendants sit, followed by the passenger seats towards the back of the aircraft. The flight attendant explained to Upgraded Points that they often notice turbulence more when sitting in the back of the plane than the front jump seats. Therefore, it may be best to avoid seats in the back of the plane, where there seems to be more movement.
Although middle seats probably won’t mean you’ll feel any more or less turbulence, nervous flyers may want to avoid them. Feeling trapped in a middle seat when the plane is bumping around may induce more panic or fear than in a window seat, where you can look out the window or lean against the plane’s wall and close your eyes, or the aisle seat, which can often feel a bit more spacious.
Now that you know where to sit for less turbulence, it’s time to figure out how to get these coveted front and over-the-wing seats.
SeatGuru is a website that allows flyers to view seat maps of different aircraft from several different airlines. These maps can help you determine desirable seats or row numbers on different planes and routes.
Now armed with information about exactly where you want to sit for the least turbulence on a particular route or aircraft, the easiest way to get these seats is by reserving them in advance. Depending on your fare class, airline, and elite status level, seat selections may be free, or you may have to pay a fee to reserve them, but it may be worth it if you’re hoping to avoid turbulence or are an anxious flyer.
Certain airlines, like Southwest, have open seating. Holding elite status or checking in as soon as it’s available may help you get an earlier boarding group, meaning you’ll be one of the first people on the plane and have more options for selecting the seat you want.
We’ve determined that the front of the plane is the best place to sit on a plane to feel less turbulence, and most business class and first class seats are at the front. Don’t have the cash for these high-priced fares? Use your points and miles to fly business or first class.
Holding airline elite status may mean you can access the most premium or coveted seats on a plane. You may be able to upgrade your seats for free or for a small fee, depending on the airline, route, and your status level.Hot Tip:
Understanding all the perks and benefits of whatever level of elite status you hold is the key to maximizing them. If you don’t know what you’re entitled to, you can’t take advantage of it!
It’s normal to be nervous, nauseous, panicked, or downright terrified when turbulence of any kind hits. Turbulence may also exacerbate a general fear of flying. But the pilot we spoke to suggested that knowledge is key to combating anxiety brought on by turbulence. If you understand what causes turbulence and that it shouldn’t affect the safety of the aircraft, the flyers, or the aircraft, that may keep some nerves in check.
According to the flight attendant Upgraded Points interviewed, “The aircraft goes through rigorous flight testing and [is] designed to handle turbulence. It’s much like bumps in the road for a car, where tires and shocks are designed to handle it, except car bumps can be much more damaging than air turbulence. I tell anxious passengers to put their heads back, rest, and close their eyes. Breathe in your nose and out through your mouth slowly.”
Distraction is another way to combat turbulence anxiety. Read a book, watch a movie, listen to a podcast, or put on soothing music or meditation to help keep you calm.
Page told Upgraded Points that one of the best things nervous flyers can do is speak directly to the pilots. “Try to board early and ask the crew if you can have a chat with the pilots. More often than not, if we’re not too busy, we’re more than happy to chat with our passengers who are nervous about the flight. It’ll make you realize that we’re just normal people like you who have families and friends we want to go home to. Remember, turbulence is never dangerous, just uncomfortable.”Hot Tip:
If you get motion sickness or experience nausea during turbulence or when flying, your doctor may recommend you take over-the-counter motion sickness medicine before flying or refrain from overeating or drinking alcohol on the flight.
The only way to avoid turbulence altogether is to not fly. And for us frequent travelers, that isn’t feasible. So the best way to combat bumpy flights is to pick the right seats and try to control your reaction to turbulence by staying calm. You should also know that pilots do everything they can to avoid turbulence.Hot Tip:
Remember, while it won’t help you avoid turbulence, fastening your seatbelt whenever instructed will help you avoid injury due to turbulence.
The pilot we spoke to explained that he’s deviated up to 100 miles to avoid bad weather and prevent turbulence. “We usually reduce the speed to the turbulent air penetration speed, and at the same time, we ask the air traffic controller for a lower or higher altitude, where, according to the forecast and other pilot’s reports, we should find smoother air, as long as there’s no other air traffic already at that altitude and position. We also avoid weather as much as we can, or at least we try to go where there’s less turbulence.”
The flight attendant echoed the same sentiments. “I tell passengers [that] the pilots are on the radio with ATC (air traffic control), receiving ride reports where there are better altitudes with smoother air and trying to either climb above or go below the turbulence.”
Turbulence is a part of flying, and it’s not going away any time soon. Airlines are using modern technology to better predict and combat turbulence. Delta launched a weather app for pilots a few years back that can help them recognize coming turbulence and alter flight routes accordingly. Still, turbulence seems to be on the rise, especially clear air turbulence.
According to the Wall Street Journal, wind shears have steadily increased over the past 50 years, which means sudden wind direction changes that can cause turbulence are more common.
The culprit? Climate change, according to NPR. Thanks to a “global temperature increase due to rising levels of greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide, the jet stream is experiencing more wind shear.”
While this isn’t great news for flyers hoping to avoid turbulence, there is some good news. The FAA is encouraging airlines to provide more training around turbulence and modernize the Pilot Report System (PIREPS), which can hopefully help pilots minimize turbulence. In the meantime, reserve a seat in the front of the plane or over the wing, close your eyes, and hope for smooth skies.
While some flights may be grounded due to weather, yes, planes can fly in thunderstorms. Flying through a thunderstorm is easier than taking off or landing in stormy weather. Most planes will attempt to fly upwind, as downwind is bumpier. Planes can and will stay airborne after being struck by lightening, too. Passengers may experience discomfort when flying in a thunderstorm due to intense winds and rain that can cause turbulence.
No, not all flights have turbulence. However, turbulence can happen during any flight or any route, from light to moderate or severe. The likelihood of having severe turbulence during a flight is fairly unlikely, though most flyers will experience a flight (or several) with light to moderate turbulence at some point.
While no aircraft can avoid turbulence, passengers may feel less turbulence in widebody aircrafts, as they’re larger and heavier airplanes.
If you have motion sickness, it’s best to sit near the front of the plane or over the wing. These areas may feel less turbulence, especially during light or moderate turbulence. If you feel sick during a flight or know you’re prone to motion sickness, speak to the flight attendant and ask for a sickness bag.
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