Skip to content

Should you be worried about turbulence? Here’s what the experts say

Dec. 19, 2022
6 min read
airplane cabin
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Editor's Note

This post was updated with new information.

Three dozen people were injured after a Hawaiian Airlines A330 hit severe turbulence en route from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) to Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) on Sunday. Twenty passengers were sent to the hospital upon landing, according to CNN. Eleven were in "serious condition."

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident.

Severe turbulence that leads to injuries is rare, but this occurrence serves as a reminder that flight attendants and pilots are serious when they ask passengers to keep their seat belts on during the flight. It also may make travelers question how worried they should be about turbulence. The bumps, drops and shaking can put even the most seasoned travelers on the edge of their seats.

On an overnight American Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Miami International Airport (MIA), a sense of panic took hold of me as turbulence shook the plane for the first three hours of the flight.

I knew before taking off that there were storms over much of the southern U.S. that were spawning tornadoes in Texas, so when the flight quickly started getting bumpy, I immediately concluded it was related to the weather. (I also noticed the pilot was flying low enough that I could see the ground for the first few hours of the flight.)

The uneasy journey got me thinking more about turbulence and how passengers can figure out when it’s normal — and when it’s potentially something to be concerned about. So, I reached out to a few aviation experts to get the lowdown. Here’s what they said you need to know about turbulence during flights.

What is turbulence?

Justin Franco, a former American Airlines spokesperson and a self-proclaimed “weather nerd,” says there are two types of turbulence: clear-air turbulence and convective turbulence.

“Clear-air turbulence is caused by the sudden formation of cumulus clouds, jet streams and other weather phenomena,” Franco told TPG. “Convective turbulence is caused by stormy conditions on the ground or in the atmosphere.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

“Convective turbulence can be far more severe than clear-air turbulence,” Franco explained. “In fact, most incidents of severe air turbulence happen during storms or other severe weather events. The wind flow is not smooth like an airplane wing, so it rises and falls in waves. This causes the air pressure to rise and fall as well, causing sudden jolts of movement in the plane.”

Should you worry about turbulence?

I’ll admit, every flight I’m on where there’s a jolt, my blood pressure immediately rises. However, captain Laura Einsetler, an aviation blogger and commercial airline pilot with 30-plus years of flying experience, reassured me the ups and downs that I feel in flight are nothing out of the ordinary.

“Turbulence is not something to be concerned about because the aircraft are built to withstand severe turbulence for long periods of time,” Einsetler said. “This is why the wings flex so that they are dynamic structures. This is similar to earthquake-resistant buildings that sway to withstand the forces.”

JETLINERIMAGES/GETTY

Patrick Smith, a pilot and writer of the Ask the Pilot blog, agreed. “For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside down, thrown into a tailspin or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket. Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash," Smith said. "Turbulence is an aggravating nuisance for everybody, including the crew, but it’s also, for lack of a better term, normal.”

How do pilots handle turbulence?

Although turbulence may be common, pilots still try to minimize it when possible.

“We coordinate with our airline weather pros and dispatch in addition to using software and Doppler radar that shows us where the areas of turbulence are,” Einsetler said. “We route either around or plan for lower or higher altitudes that are smoother.”

Related: Can pilots predict turbulence?

To ease passengers’ nerves and ensure safety, pilots will typically make an announcement about any expected bumps during the flight.

“[Ideally] pilots should give PA announcements every 15 to 20 minutes in anticipation of a turbulent area and also during,” Einsetler said. “It is very important that when the seat belt announcement has been made, and the seat belt lights are on, that everyone stays in their seats with seat belts on and things secured.“

Even if pilots don’t make announcements about the turbulence — which was the case during my recent overnight flight — there’s usually little cause for concern.

“When it comes to communicating with passengers about turbulence, I personally [would] much rather have the captain of a flight be concentrating on the potential issue at hand,” Franco said. “What I can tell you is that if you ever see a flight attendant dash down the aisle and return the beverage cart faster than you thought was ever possible, it typically means stay seated.”

Related: How the weather affects your flight

How can you avoid turbulence when you fly?

If you’re still worried about turbulence, Einsetler said there are a few things passengers can do to minimize the chance of encountering it during flights:

  • Always take the earliest morning flights possible since the air is smoothest earlier in the day.
  • Fly the largest jet possible so you’ll feel fewer bumps while in the air.
  • When possible, plan your trips for fall or spring when the weather conditions are consistently better.
  • If you’re traveling in winter, try to book flights with more southerly routings and connections to avoid ice and snowstorms. For summer travels, reserve flights with more northerly routings to decrease the likelihood of encountering afternoon thunderstorms.
  • Keep an eye on the Weather Channel or the MyRadar app a day or two before your flight so you can anticipate any weather issues at your departure city or destination, at your connections or along your route.

Bottom line

It’s not unusual to experience turbulence when you fly. While it can be unsettling in the moment, there’s no need to panic over those bumps in the sky.

Take a deep breath and remember that what you feel is perfectly normal. Odds are the temporary discomfort will be over before you know it.

Additional reporting by Clint Henderson.

Featured image by NATNAN SRISUWAN/GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023