As far as accident statistics are concerned, commercial flights are the safest way to travel. It’s understandable, of course, that passengers are uneasy when the ride gets bouncy. This is especially noticeable in small planes like turboprops used by many airlines to handle short-distance connections.
It helps to remember that the medium through which an airplane travels isn’t a smooth superhighway in the sky. It’s a mishmash of air streams that travel in different directions and at different speeds.
Their temperatures, as well as their moisture content, are different. The air pressure (or density, in a simplified way of speaking) changes from one place to another, and between altitudes as well.
All this makes the country’s interstate highways much smoother than the airspace above. There are invisible “potholes” that the plane drops into. The opposite, “humps” in the air, can often be seen in the form of clouds, especially the kind that reaches high into the sky.
Commercial flights travel along prescribed routes. For reasons of traffic safety, as well as fuel consumption, they have little to no flexibility in their course. But the air does. If a plane keeps getting pounded by high-altitude winds that want to go a different way, the result is a ride with lots of sideways shaking. Most pilots try to eliminate this annoyance by finding an altitude where things are quieter, but that’s not always possible.
The fact is that turbulence, even violent shaking, won’t bring an airliner down. Unlike cars, which need to be rigid to handle the road safely, airplanes are made to be flexible. That’s why you can see the wings bouncing up and down in rough air. It simply confirms that the plane is doing just fine. During construction, the wings and body are tested under much more stress than they experience in the heaviest storm.
For many passengers, some shaking is less troubling than the sudden drops smaller planes can experience. A flight from Atlanta to Knoxville, Tenn., for example, takes you across a mountain range, with pockets of rising as well as descending air. A turboprop can swing up and down considerably when the weather is busy. But there, too, is nothing to worry about. Even a 200-foot drop is insignificant, compared to a flying altitude well above 20,000 feet. Just think of it as a pothole along the way.