Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Managing Turbulence During Air Travel

Fear is understandable, but you are safe if you fasten your seat belt.

Key points

  • Wearing a seat belt is all you need to do to be physically safe.
  • If you are a seat belt wearer, stories of passengers being injured in turbulence do not apply to you.
  • Each traumatic experience you have increases your sensitivity to not being in control.

Significant progress has been made in the last five years to give passengers a better ride at cruise altitude. Several hundred planes have been fitted with sensors that constantly send turbulence information, along with the plane’s, altitude, speed, and location, to a computer on the ground. The computer relays the information to other planes participating in the program. This allows pilots to know whether there is turbulence ahead and whether a change of altitude can improve the ride. Airlines participating in the program, IATA Turbulence Aware, are ANA, Aer Lingus, Air France, Aegean, China Airlines, Delta, easyJet, Korean, Lufthansa, Qatar, Saudia, Southwest, SwissAir, United, and Westjet,

This system works well in heavily trafficked areas where several planes at different altitudes are feeding information into the system. In areas where there is little air traffic, the system isn't helpful. Since pilots cannot always know the conditions ahead, passengers are told to keep their seat belt comfortably fastened, even when the seat belt sign is off. Human nature being what it is, some passengers do not comply. Usually they get away with not wearing a seat belt. But when severe turbulence occurs unexpectedly, unbelted passenger may be severely injured. News reports rarely point out that injured passengers were not wearing seat belts or that passengers wearing a seat belt were unharmed.

On May 21st, 2024, Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 from London to Singapore encountered severe unexpected turbulence as the plane was passing over Myanmar at 37,000 feet. Passenger Andrew Davies had not been wearing his seat belt. He buckled up quickly when the seat belt sign came on. A press release from the Singapore Ministry of Transportation details what happened next. As the turbulence began, the plane started climbing. After climbing for a few seconds, it abruptly reversed direction and descended.

As this reversal from climbing to descending took place, the G-forces reversed from slightly positive to sharply negative (from 1.35G to -1.5G). When sitting still, we feel the force of gravity; we refer to that as 1.0 G; when falling we experience zero G. The passengers who were not wearing seat belts - whose momentum was upward due to the climb - were catapulted toward the ceiling at 19 mph. As the abrupt descent started, the cabin ceiling began descending at 17 mph. The unbelted passengers collided with the ceiling at a combined speed of 36 miles per hour.

For a moment, the negative G-force (-1.5G) held the unbelted passengers against the ceiling. But then, when the G-force turned from negative to positive, they fell to the floor. The report states, "The rapid changes in G over the 4.6 sec duration . . . likely caused the injuries to the crew and passengers." Noting that unbelted passengers were injured and belted passengers were not, Davies tweeted, ”Lesson is — wear a seat belt at ALL TIMES.”

How You Can Deal With Turbulence

Wearing a seat belt is all you need to do to be physically safe. As proof, ask yourself if you have ever heard of a pilot being injured by turbulence. Pilots are never injured by turbulence because they always wear their seat belt.

Knowing you are physically safe in turbulence is the basis for taking further steps, steps that allow you to feel emotionally safe in turbulence.

  • Understand that, as a seat belt wearer, stories of passengers being injured in turbulence do not apply to you.
  • There is no such thing as an air pocket. The plane does not fall when in turbulence. Instead, turbulence causes the plane to abruptly change from climbing to descending and visa versa. To understand the plane does not fall, see this video.
  • Feelings of arousal (rapid heart rate, rapid breathing rate, tension, etc,) can be experienced as fear. Fear can cause us to believe we are in danger. We need to be mindful that (a.) arousal as just arousal, (b.) that arousal and fear are not the same thing, and (c.) that fear does not necessarily mean danger.
  • An abrupt change from level flight to descending - or as in the case with the Singapore incident from climbing to descending - feels like falling. It is natural for stress hormones to be released when you feel like you are falling.
  • The amount of stress hormones released can be reduced by knowing that, in spite of how dramatically the plane may move when in turbulence, you are nevertheless safe. Video of planes that fly into hurricanes for weather reconnaissance should convince you that planes can handle any turbulence.
  • We all have traumatic experiences, In them, we are unable to control what happens. Thus, each traumatic experience increases our sensitivity to not being in control. As sensitivity increases, the amount of stress hormones released when we are not in control - or even imagine not being in control - increases. The same is true about not being able to escape.
  • We may not notice it as the amount of stress hormones released in no-control, no-escape situations increases. If so, we can without warning be unable to get into an elevator, MRIs, or airliner. Or, a bridge, tunnel, or high place causes us to panic out of the blue.
  • The amygdala is reacting to what neuroscientists call valence code that has become attached to not being in control and to not being able to escape.
  • We can reprogram how our amygdala reacts to no-control and no-escape situations by changing the valence code attached to these situations from negative to positive.

How Can Reprogramming Be Done?
The renowned neuropsychology researcher Stephen Porges discovered that positive valence code associated with a friend's face, voice, and touch can cause our parasympathetic nervous system to override the effects of stress hormones and produce profound calming. Porges' discovery, together with valence code research at the Salk Institute and other places, provides us with a way to feel save when flying in turbulence.

To change the valence code and feel safe in turbulence, associate your friend's face, voice, and touch to the feeling of falling, to thinking the plane may plunge, and to the fear that you may lose control if the turbulence gets too bad or lasts too long.

More from Tom Bunn L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today