Tremors in the Sky: Sudden Turbulence

"I can still remember how scary that turbulence was," the veteran flight attendant said about a disturbing experience early on in her long career with American Airlines.

She and other cabin crew members were stowing food and beverage carts as the plane began to buck. Then what happened? "I hit my head on a shelf and got knocked unconscious."

This flight attendant, who still flies for American, doesn't want her real name used, so we'll just call her "Jane Doe." She does, however, want it known that her main concern is always the safety of her passengers. Especially in times of turbulence.

Buckle up, Jane said. Get in the habit of buckling up anytime you're in your seat, even when there is no turbulence. And it should go without saying to buckle up any time the seat belt sign lights up -- even if you feel nothing.

That's because turbulence can occur with no warning; and as Jane tells her passengers: "You don't want to end up on the ceiling like pancake batter, do you?"

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What exactly is turbulence? The Federal Aviation Administration describes it this way:

"Turbulence is air movement that normally cannot be seen and often occurs unexpectedly," according to the FAA. "It can be created by many different conditions, including atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms."

You know the expression, "It came out of the clear blue sky?" Well, turbulence can be like that; it can occur even when the sky looks clear and calm.

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Before we go further, though, let me make this very important point: Commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation. However, turbulence does injure nearly 60 people in the United States each year; in fact, it's the leading cause of in-flight injuries to passengers and crew members (in non-fatal accidents).

So even though flying is safe, turbulence can be dangerous, if -- and this is important -- you are not belted in. Some recent examples:

March 2010: Three flight attendants received minor injuries when a Delta plane hit turbulence as it approached Palm Beach International Airport.

February 2010: About 20 people were injured by turbulence aboard a United Airlines plane midway between Washington, D.C., and Tokyo.

August 2009: Twenty-six people were injured by turbulence on a Continental flight from Brazil to Houston.

April 2009: Three passengers and a flight attendant were injured during a Continental flight over Texas; one passenger was paralyzed.

Even Air Force One can be affected by turbulence, as President Clinton found out back in June 1996, when his 747 was 33,000 feet over the general area of Lubbock, Texas, and the plane ran into severe turbulence. The then-president was OK, but another passenger was injured.

By the way, paying passengers aren't the most common victims of turbulence: flight attendants are. According to the FAA, of the 298 serious turbulence injuries from 1980 to 2008, 114 involved passengers, while 184 involved flight attendants.

That's not so surprising; flight attendants are the ones who are up and about for long periods during a flight.

The airlines understand their vulnerability and try to protect them. An American Airlines spokesman told us that AA's flight attendant manual contains this section, all in caps: "In the case of unexpected turbulence, cease all duties and take immediate action to protect yourself."

Flight attendant Jane Doe said that makes sense to her.

"What good am I to my passengers if I have a broken neck?" she asked.

A note to white-knuckled fliers, who may sometimes feel like the plane is going to "break" during turbulence: according to pilot Charles Feldman, the aviation expert for KNX radio in Los Angeles: "You have a much better chance of having a space ship suck you out of your commercial jetliner and take you to another galaxy than your plane being broken up by turbulence."

He notes that modern commercial jetliners are built to withstand such punishment, and as MIT's Dr. John Hansman noted last summer, "It's exceptionally rare to have structural damage due to turbulence."

Feldman advises all fliers to buckle up any time they're seated -- yes, even if the ride is smooth and the seat belt sign is off. And he said even babies should be in appropriate seats that can be buckled, as well.

So does the FAA.

"The safest place for a child under 2 on an airplane is in a safety seat, not a parent's lap," an FAA spokesman said. "There is simply no way to hold onto a lap child if you hit severe turbulence."

However, the FAA continues to allow "lap children" (those under 2 years old) and there are no current plans to change that rule.

But, back to the grown-ups. Jane, our veteran flight attendant, said one of the most exasperating parts of her job is watching people get up and head to the lavatories, even when the seat belt sign is on. She adds that frequent fliers seem to be the worst culprits, and that may be because they've seen the seat belt sign come on many times before, and nothing bad happened.

And yes, sometimes nothing does happen, but that's the thing about turbulence -- it can erupt without warning. So, you have to be ready, especially for turbulence that causes the aircraft to move violently and erratically.

As flight attendant Jane said, "When the plane goes down, you go up. Simple as that."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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