NTSB Turbulence Accident Risk Mitigation Targets Better Reporting, Onboard Precautions

Jet and sunset
Credit: FAA

More consistent reporting, better forecasting, and more proactive onboard risk-mitigation measures such as wearing seatbelts and protecting cabin crew are keys to reducing turbulence-related accidents and related injuries, an NTSB study on the issue found. 

The board used its conclusions as the basis for making 21 new safety recommendations and re-upping five previous ones to the FAA, air carrier associations, and the National Weather Service (NWS) that support its conclusions. 

“Despite steady improvements in the overall accident rate for Part 121 air carrier operations, turbulence continues to be a major cause of accidents and injuries,” the NTSB said in a summary of its findings made public Aug. 10.  

The board’s study found 38% of the 295 Part 121 accidents, defined as causing serious injury, death, or severe aircraft damage, from 2000-2018 were turbulence-related. Among the common themes—most injuries occurred to fight attendants or passengers who were not wearing seatbelts, and 60% of the encounters happened below 20,000 ft. during descent. The NTSB urged the FAA to update guidance on turbulence-related injury prevention “to reflect current best practices” and incorporate specific information on mitigating risk to flight attendants. 

NTSB’s findings focus on the quality and consistency of real-time turbulence reports. Collected mostly via pilot reports, or PIREPs, turbulence data is neither abundant enough nor sufficiently disseminated. The board recommended the FAA “work with stakeholders to standardize” PIREP distribution “across and within air traffic control facilities,” and ensure controllers receive reports that are applicable to the airspace they are working. The agency also should develop automated PIREP collection tools for controllers to help increase both their quantity and accuracy. 

The board also wants the FAA and NWS to collaborate on improving the quality of airmen’s meteorological information issuing practices. The board believes they need to be more specific and user-friendly, such as by enhancing the current all-text format with some graphics. 

NTSB also renewed its call for child safety restraints to be used onboard aircraft. It recommends an FAA study to better understand “the factors that affect caregivers’ decisions about the use of child restraint system,” and use the findings to improve child-restraint usage. 

Investigators also lauded the promise of short-term forecasting, or nowcasting, and recommended the FAA work with NWS to “operationalize” a graphic-based nowcast system. 

“Turbulence is the most common airline accident type today, and it is high time that we reduce turbulence-related injuries,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Bruce Landsberg. “And the best way to reduce turbulence injuries is to prevent airplane encounters with turbulence. That means better forecasting and nowcasting and the sharing of data, rapidly and accurately. Getting and giving pilot reports and improving that entire system will help a lot.” 

New NTSB Chair Confirmed

Separately, the U.S. Senate confirmed NTSB Jennifer Homendy as board’s next chair. Homendy has served on the board since August 2018 and was reconfirmed to serve a five-year term in August 2019. U.S. President Joseph Biden nominated Homendy for chair in May. 

“Ms. Homendy is a tireless advocate for safety, whose expertise and experience make her an excellent choice to lead this crucial transportation safety agency,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our aviation safety partnership with the NTSB and to working with Chair Homendy in her new role to further our mutual goal of achieving the highest standards of aviation safety.” 

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.


Safety on board aircraft is long overdue. With newer technology, probably robots attached to and walking on floor tracks and with all the passengers strapped in tight, including babies, flying on board aircraft will become much safer. As far as unruly passengers are concerned, the robots will be equipped to put nets over them and then strap them to the floor. Ryanair or Southwest will probably be in the forefront in this new technology, since it saves a lot of money and aggravation. There may be no pilots up front either, if the Wall-Streeters have their way. Good luck to all of us passengers in the future.
Ms. Homendy is a bright and pleasant person I am sure but is unqualified to be chairman of the NTSB. She is not a pilot, (the FAA says she has a student pilot's certificate issued February 2020 which is a meaningless piece of paper) she is not an A&P mechanic, she is not an experienced aircraft accident or any other type accident investigator and it is unclear whether she has attended the NTSB or FAA accident investigation courses, each of which are only 2 weeks long. In her three years at the NTSB she has never been investigator in charge. What the NTSB needs is a solid, experienced and trained accident investigator at its helm not another political appointee. Aircraft, Rail and Transportation accident investigation is serious business and should be treated as such!