The Going Gets Rough

What's The Deal?

August 09, 2009|By MICHELLE DEAL-ZIMMERMAN

Let's talk turbulence.

Last week, a Continental flight en route from Rio de Janeiro to Houston had to make an emergency landing in Miami because of severe turbulence. More than 30 passengers were injured, mostly with bumps, cuts and bruises, but a few were hurt badly enough that they were hospitalized.

In a statement, Continental said the seat-belt sign was on when the flight encountered turbulence at about 36,000 feet. Passengers said the Boeing 767 dropped suddenly, tossing them and crew members around like rag dolls.

Turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to passengers in nonfatal accidents, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. And the main culprit: not wearing your seat belt.

Last Monday's incident reminded me of another Continental flight earlier this year where a woman was partially paralyzed after she got up to go to the bathroom and a jolt of turbulence sent her crashing into the ceiling.

The airline says the seat-belt sign was on, but the woman told Matt Lauer on "The Today Show" that she did not hear anyone say to keep her seat belt fastened. She also saw other passengers getting up to go to the bathroom. Insert my mother's singsong voice: If so and so jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?

Here's my rule about walking around the plane cabin: If the seat-belt sign is lit, I sit. And, more importantly, I keep my seat belt buckled. At all times.

According to the FAA, a variety of conditions can create turbulence, including atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms. And turbulence can even occur when the sky is clear.

On most flights, the captain will warn passengers when the ride is about to get bumpy. I still remember a particularly hostile spring air mass that made a flight from Baltimore to Tampa a veritable roller coaster. The pilot just could not find a smooth spot and everyone - including the flight attendants - remained seated throughout the trip.

Now, if you're on a longish, 10- or 12-hour flight, like the Rio to Houston route, you may want to get up every few hours to avoid "economy class syndrome" or blood clots. But there are exercises you can do in your seat to move your feet and ankles so you don't endanger your health. When you sit back down, put on your seat belt.

The FAA offers these statistics:

* Each year about 60 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts.

* U.S. airlines reported 234 incidents related to turbulence from 1980 to 2008, resulting in nearly 300 serious injuries and three deaths. Of the three fatalities, two were not wearing seat belts.

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