What is turbulence, and why does it happen?

Turbulence is the term used to refer to unexpected shaking and movement that occurs during a flight. There are a number of reasons why turbulence might occur, with the most common being “clear-air” turbulence, which occurs when cold and warm air come into conflict. Disruptions in this category typically occur at altitudes between 7,000 to 12,000 meters, and often seems more frightening to inexperienced passengers in the cabin than it does to weathered attendants and crew members on the flight deck. However, turbulence can also be caused by pockets of heat, jet streams, thunderstorms, and – if you can believe it – the unusual wind patterns found over mountain ranges.

Is turbulence common?

Turbulence happens on nearly every flight, although the severity can vary from flight to flight depending on the conditions of the day. Usually, the jolting and shaking experienced in-flight is nothing more than a brief discomfort, though some passengers might feel frightened and stressed if they haven’t had prior experience on flights. However, in most cases the turbulence is benign and poses no significant risk to the flight.  


When will airlines cancel a flight?

Generally, airlines try to avoid cancelling flights unless the circumstances demand it. For instance, passengers shouldn’t be concerned that their flight will be grounded due to a particularly rainy or breezy day. However, severe weather events such as thunderstorms, hurricanes, or extreme winds will often leave a plane waiting on the tarmac until better conditions arise.  


Is turbulence dangerous?

This question doesn’t have a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Turbulence varies in severity, and while most instances constitute nothing more than a brief inconvenience, others are more concerning. Generally, moments of turbulence falls into one of the following four categories.

Light Turbulence

As I mentioned before, this type of movement is common and poses no significant threat to passengers. It may cause small, irregular deviations from the planes usual altitude or tilt – however, some relaxed passengers may not even notice it.

Moderate Turbulence

This type of turbulence is both rarer and more uncomfortable than the previous type. Passengers might experience sudden, jerky movement as exterior conditions force the plain to suddenly shift altitude by as much as six meters.

Severe Turbulence

Even the most experienced travelers will take notice when a plane experiences severe turbulence. The pilot might periodically – and briefly! – lose control of the plane and cause his passengers to jerk against their seatbelts in the cabin as the plane shifts altitude by as many as 30 meters. Injuries may occur if a plane faces severe turbulence.

Extreme Turbulence

This type of turbulence is extremely rare, and should not be a common concern for aircraft passengers. When it occurs, the pilot usually loses control of the vehicle and faces the real possibility of aircraft damage.


Will I be warned before the plane experiences turbulence?

Generally speaking, pilots will warn passengers to fasten their seatbelts in the event that turbulence occurs. Moreover, it is worth noting that pilots are on constant watch for problematic conditions; aside from having weather forecast reports prior to the flight, those in the cockpit receive periodic updates from grounded meteorologists and nearby aircrafts and have easy access to real-time radar technology. Needless to say, unexpected turbulence is a rare occurrence.
For the inexperienced traveler, the bouncing and jolting caused by turbulence can be frightening and stressful; however, it is a common and – in most cases – utterly benign happening. No one should be afraid to take to the air, be it for pleasure or a business trip!