If you could step back in time, flying would be a much more harrowing experience, especially if you were sensitive to turbulence and movement. Over the last several decades, the construction of planes and the technologies used in aviation greatly reduce how we experience turbulence, compared to flying without those features. And companies are not done. More advanced designs and technologies are rolled out every year and installed in planes built today and for the future. Climate models predict that encounters with turbulent air might increase later in this century due to climate change, so companies are looking ahead to keep passengers comfortable and safe.
One of the main reasons planes don’t experience as much turbulence as in the earlier years of flight is their ability to fly above cloud levels, and thus above most weather conditions. That fact alone allows commercial flights to avoid a large part of normal turbulence that is based on conditions closer to the earth’s surface and in the troposphere. Commercial long-distance flights usually operate in the lower stratosphere between 33,000 and 42,000 feet.
Another reason is how planes are constructed, and here wing size and flex are the most important features. Wings are built to flex up and down, buffeting the movement of air in flight, while being stiff and stable enough to maintain the required lift at high speeds. Think of the mechanism of a car suspension that absorbs some of the impact of potholes and bumps in the road. When you see the wings of your plane moving, that’s a good thing!
There also are a lot of advanced technologies on commercial planes that you don’t see, but that make your ride much smoother. Digital autopilots register small movements and accelerations in different axes of the plane. During regular cruise flight, the engaged autopilot works to keep wings level and the plane at the desired pitch. As soon as the autopilot detects small deviations, it activates flight control surfaces such as ailerons, rudder, and elevators to counteract turbulent air and gusty winds. Commercial planes are also built with what is called positive stability, which means that they return on their own to their initial flying position if a wind gust or turbulence hits the plane from the side and creates a rotation. And pilots and autopilots will adjust the speed of the plane to provide a smoother ride in moderate or severe turbulence as needed. Imagine driving over potholes with 80 miles/hour. You’re bumping your head in the car! That same pothole at 20 or 30 miles/hour is just a little soft bump. Air is quite similar in the way it interacts with a plane.
Gust/load alleviation systems measure upward acceleration of the plane, and also automatically activate deflecting control surfaces. You might be able to observe this if you’re seated near a window where you can see the wing of the plane. Ailerons might be moving constantly, while you feel very little movement inside. That’s your plane doing the work of counteracting erratic wind conditions outside.
And finally, there are developments in predictive technologies that will be able to identify areas of clear air turbulence ahead. Those are currently very expensive and many are still in testing phases. For example, short laser impulse blasts can scatter and record how frequencies of light change when aerosols reflect them. Planes will then have counteracting features that activate based on those readings, and pilots will be able to “see” turbulence about 10 miles ahead. On top of the plane’s automatic action, pilots can initiate actions to either avoid turbulence or turn on seatbelt signs ahead of time. Expect to see more of these technologies on future flights.