Turbulence in the air and on the stock market: How climate change is increasing airline hazards and affecting Boeing's public image

Recently, Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 plunged 6,000 feet during a breakfast service, ultimately causing a passenger's death and dozens of injuries. This incident raised awareness about the dangers of air turbulence and how climate change can be a factor in exacerbating these kinds of incidents. Understanding turbulence and its causes is vital for airlines and aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, as well as the financial implications associated with these incidents.

  • How often do air injuries occur during flights? Despite the millions of flights that occur each year, incidents like what occurred on SQ321 are rare. Between 2009 and 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded 163 hospitalizations in the United States due to turbulence. The National Transportation Safety Board has not reported any large-body aircraft turbulence-related deaths during the same period. However, turbulence can rarely cause an aircraft to crash, such as American Airlines flight 587 from New York to Santo Domingo in 2001. The crash, which killed all 260 people on board, was caused by a technical error triggered by turbulence that caused a failure in the aircraft's vertical stabiliser.
  • What causes turbulence and are instances of it increasing? Turbulence is generally caused by variations in air pressure, temperature, and wind speeds. Various factors, such as natural terrain like mountains and weather events, can also contribute to its cause. The phenomenon is more likely to occur when aircraft cruise in smooth clear air, making it difficult to detect and avoid. Experts point to rising greenhouse gas emissions as the main reason for an increase in turbulence. A University of Reading study found that clear-air turbulence had increased by 55 percent over the North Atlantic between 1979 and 2020, blaming greenhouse gas emissions for the surge. Similarly, researchers at the University of Chicago projected that rising temperatures could lead to higher wind speeds in the fastest upper-level jet stream. They estimate that speeds will increase by 2 percent for every degree Celsius the world warms, which is expected to increase by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if greenhouse gases continue to rise. The global temperature has already increased by at least 1.1 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era, with the biggest surge occurring since 1975, according to NASA.
  • Who is most affected by turbulence? Flight crew members make up the majority of turbulence-related injuries. According to the Association of Flight Attendants, turbulence is a serious workplace safety issue for flight attendants. When it comes to brands, consumer perception is critical. Perceptions about Boeing aircraft being unsafe have increased after several incidents were reported involving Boeing aircraft, prompting consumers to consider avoiding flying on Boeing planes altogether.
  • What are the financial implications of turbulence? Despite how rare disaster-related turbulence is, it costs airlines up to $500 million annually. This covers expenses such as aircraft and cabin damage, delays, and liability payments. Airlines are also held financially responsible for injuries incurred on board due to turbulence under the Montreal Convention, including injuries, damage to luggage, and even death.
  • What does the Singapore Airlines incident mean for Boeing? The climate-related atmospheric turbulence comes at the same time as a period of controversy for the airline industry and aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Multiple incidents involving Boeing aircraft have led to consumers blaming the manufacturer for aircraft issues rather than other factors. This has led to consumers avoiding flying in Boeing aircraft altogether. Despite this, Wall Street does not seem to be concerned about the myriad of issues facing Boeing in the eyes of the general public. According to Al Jazeera, "I think a lot of the bad news is priced in ... And if they start positively surprising on, you know, quality improvements in production, you could start to see that go the other way."

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