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Could turbulence become the new normal for flying?

Climate change poses an obvious long-term existential threat, but the impact for the aviation industry may be more immediate. MATT LENNON investigates.

SIX weeks after Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 dropped sharply en route from London Heathrow to Singapore on 21 May, forcing an emergency diversion to Thailand, some travellers remain in hospital and at various stages of recovery. 

The aircraft remained in Bangkok for a thorough inspection and returned to Singapore five days later, where it has remained while investigations continue. 

More importantly, the focus has rightly been on the welfare of the passengers. Much has been said about the more than 100 travellers who suffered various injuries, particularly the poor British fellow who suffered a fatal heart attack. Now that most have been discharged and returned home, attention now turns to what levels of compensation may be forthcoming. 

Regulation complications

According to Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson and travel law specialist, Victoria Roy, passenger rights for injuries sustained inflight are protected by international conventions and cannot be waived as a condition of purchasing a ticket. 

First was the Warsaw Convention, signed in 1929, which gradually frayed into a confusing mess before finally being unified under the Montreal Convention 70 years later.  

Both agreements govern air travel in perpetuity, however only 136 of 191 International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) member states, plus the European Union, have signed it. 

Travellers must prove three things to claim against an airline bound by Montreal. First, that the incident happened on an aircraft; second, that they suffered bodily injury; and third, that the incident was caused accidentally – an opaque term which can easily go either way depending on a court’s interpretation. 

Under Montreal, airlines are liable for roughly US$175,000 (AU$262,400) for proven damages without any proof of negligence but can defend against claims for higher amounts by proving the accident or incident was not its fault. This potentially opens a Pandora’s Box of arguments debating if turbulence due to a weather event exacerbated by climate change can be considered the fault of an airline. 

The spectre of a warming planet

However, to make matters even more confusing, the potential ace up the sleeve of airlines is that when Montreal was ratified in 1999, the impact of climate change held nowhere near the spotlight it does today. 

University of New South Wales Professor Steven Sherwood is a world-leading authority in how the atmosphere conspires to control the way climate changes and told travelBulletin that SQ321 would have been subjected to a deep convective storm coupled by downdraft and downbursts within it. 

“Those are driven by evaporation of ice and liquid precipitation in the storms, and we don’t really know if those are getting stronger due to climate change, but there’s a good chance they are,” Professor Sherwood said. 

“What we do know is that the storms are becoming deeper in a warmer climate – that’s been shown in a lot of studies.  

“And that means that if aircraft keep flying at the same altitude, they are potentially going to be subject to more of this turbulence, because they fly at these upper levels and can’t fly high enough to escape, but they’re kind of in the place where the updraft and downdraft can be at their most severe.” 

No solution nearby

In an ominous foreshadowing for airlines, Sherwood said even the best weather forecasting technology available can’t spot every downburst or updraft, meaning airlines can only rely on satellite imagery and warnings from other aircraft in nearby airspace. 

“We don’t have good enough forecasting to spot these things in real-time. There’s a lot of satellite imagery now and I think if we had algorithms that could go through the satellite imagery, I think in principle, they could provide more rapid warnings. 

“We just don’t have that technology yet.” 

The $64,000 question now may be whether governments, as signatories to the Montreal Convention, should prepare to potentially shoulder the financial liability for the impact climate change may have on airlines. 

But more ominously, the bigger question is not if we see another SQ321, but when. 

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