Nothing presents more of a barrier to those who do not like flying than turbulence. The mere mention of the "T" word is enough to trigger sleepless nights leading up to a flight. I know this because I work with people on a fear of flying website who are afraid of flying - and deathly afraid of turbulence. Hence the two title words above which usually elicit a smile, rather than cold sweats.
Whatever you call them, the bumps are just a part of the business. To date, no one has figured out how to see air and most of the turbulence experienced by airline passengers is Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). Often, Pilots only know about turbulence ahead from Pilot reports from planes ahead of them. In the last decade, we have learned a lot about what atmospheric conditions cause most instability in the atmosphere. Southwest uses a great system pioneered by Northwest Airlines that helps predict when and where the bumps might be. Predictions don't make it smoother, they just help the Crews get themselves and their passengers through the sky safer.
The reality is, this 2006-2007 winter is the bumpiest winter I can recall in my near 30 years in aviation. Nearly every Pilot and Flight Attendant I have talked to this year agrees that the rides offered by Mother Nature have been among the worst in recent memory. One of our renown pioneer SWA Pilots, when asked about the ride at altitude in his area, once responded by saying, "It's rougher than a stucco bathtub..." I was reminded of his comments as I rode through a trough line over Memphis this week. For forty five minutes out of our four-hour flight, it was not fun.
The key to this post for everyone is this: Fun or not, as long as everyone heeds the FASTEN SEATBELT sign and stays seated, everyone makes it through the flight just fine. People who ignore this safety rule put not only themselves at risk, but anyone they might fall on or be tossed into during an extreme turbulence encounter. Those who violate the FAA mandate to comply with Crew instructions and commands do so at their own peril.
Flying is the safest means of transportation yet devised. It has become that way because we have learned from our mistakes and used judgment built on years of experience to remove as much risk as possible. Yet some passengers always think they know better.
Your Pilots will go out of their way to give you the best ride possible but when their best efforts are no match for what Mother Nature has thrown in their path, it's best to have "battened down the hatches" well in advance. That is why the seatbelt sign is often on even though the ride is currently smooth: The Pilots expect bumps ahead. Smart passengers will heed this warning and remain seated. The same goes for passengers and Crew moving about the cabin. An old axiom of aviation reflects the caution that has made aviation safer: "I'd rather be down here wishing I was up there than up there wishing I was down here."