Passengers of Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 from London to Singapore, which made an emergency landing in Bangkok, are escorted by ground staff upon arrival at Changi Airport in Singapore on May 22, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

CHICAGO: Buckle up. That is the message from flight attendants and pilots following the severe turbulence encountered by a Singapore Airlines flight on Tuesday that resulted in the death of one passenger and injured dozens of others.

The London-to-Singapore flight hit heavy turbulence over the Indian Ocean and descended 6,000 feet (around 1,800 meters) in about three minutes, before an emergency landing in Bangkok.

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Weather forecasting service AccuWeather said satellite and lightning data showed “explosive thunderstorms” developing close to the flight path. Developing thunderstorms can leave pilots with little time to react, it said.

Airlines are required by law to switch on the seatbelt sign during takeoff and landing, but carriers have their own procedures to deal with mid-air turbulence.

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A witness on the Singapore Airlines flight said numerous people who were not in their seatbelt were thrown around the cabin when the plane dipped, many hitting their heads.

Singapore Airlines CEO Goh Choon Phong said the plane encountered sudden, extreme turbulence.

The airport in the Thai capital said 83 passengers and crew were hurt.

A relief flight carrying 131 passengers and 12 crew landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport on Wednesday morning.

Relieved relatives greeted the arrivals with hugs but all were too shaken to talk to waiting reporters.

‘Very little warning’

Andrew Davies, a British passenger aboard the Boeing 777-300ER, told BBC radio that the plane “suddenly dropped” and there was “very little warning”.

“During the few seconds of the plane dropping, there was an awful screaming and what sounded like a thud,” he said, adding that he helped a woman who was “screaming in agony” with a “gash on her head”.

Separately, he told a BBC podcast he feared the plane was going to crash.

“Remembering the plane now — the huge dents in the roof that people had obviously hit with their head. There was a water bottle stuck in a gap in the ceiling,” he said.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA representing over 50,000 at 20 airlines, said initial reports seemed to indicate clear-air turbulence, considered to be the most dangerous type of turbulence.

Clear-air turbulence cannot be seen and is virtually undetectable with current technology, making it all the more important for passengers to wear seatbelts whenever seated, she said.

“It is a matter of life and death,” Nelson said.

‘Seatbelt sign means something’

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents more than 77,000 pilots at 41 US and Canadian airlines, echoed that message, saying the safest way for passengers to protect themselves is by making sure their seatbelts are always fastened.

Turbulence-related airline accidents are the most common type of accident, a 2021 study by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said.

Most recently, in March, a Boeing 787 plane operated by LATAM Airlines dropped abruptly mid-flight, causing injuries to more than 50 people.

Aerospace safety expert Anthony Brickhouse said passengers need to minimize their movement on flights and always stay buckled in, regardless of the seatbelt light.

American Airlines requires its pilots to turn the seatbelt sign on and instruct passengers and flight attendants to sit immediately when turbulence is severe.

Flight attendants then have to remain seated until notified by the flight’s captain or the seatbelt sign is turned off.

Other airlines have similar protocols.

Some pilots and attendances say that leaving a seatbelt sign on throughout the flight would backfire — as passengers would start to ignore it.

“The seatbelt sign means something, and if you leave it on all the time, it means nothing,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, American Airlines pilot union. “Everyone will just say it’s a sign that doesn’t mean anything.”