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Turbulence and Flight SQ 321 — Some Lessons

Singapore Airlines issued an apology to those affected by the deadly and traumatic turbulence experienced on Flight SQ321. The flight encountered sudden and severe turbulence over Thai airspace.

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The interior of Singapore Airline flight SQ321. Pic: Reuters

On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use. ~ Epictetus, The Enchiridion.

On 21 May a Singapore Airlines flight bearing Flight number SQ321 and operated with a Boeing 777 aircraft en route from London to Singapore experienced intense turbulence. The sudden shifts in altitude persisted for almost a minute, causing injuries to numerous passengers and considerable damage within the aircraft. Tragically, a 73-year-old British man died during the event. Authorities are currently probing the cause of the turbulence, and the airline made an emergency landing in Bangkok to provide aid to the affected passengers.

CNN reported how passengers had  experienced severe turbulence: That they  described a sudden and dramatic drop, causing chaos aboard the aircraft which was  carrying 229 persons (211 passengers and 18 crew) . Passenger Andrew Davies recounted: “The plane felt like it just dropped. It probably only lasted a few seconds, but I vividly remember seeing shoes, iPads, iPhones, cushions, blankets, cutlery, plates, and cups flying through the air and crashing into the ceiling. The man next to me had a cup of coffee that went all over me and up to the ceiling.”

Singapore Airlines issued an apology to those affected by the deadly and traumatic turbulence experienced on Flight SQ321. The flight encountered sudden and severe turbulence over Thai airspace.

In a video statement, Singapore Airlines CEO Mr. Goh Choon Phong expressed the airline’s deep sorrow and extended his condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased. According to NBC News, 30 people were injured during the turbulence. Phong assured that the airline is providing all possible support to the injured and affected passengers. Following the incident, the flight was diverted to Bangkok for emergency medical assistance. Singapore Airlines promptly dispatched a team to assist on the ground, and a relief flight transported 143 passengers and crew back to Singapore. The airline is cooperating fully with the ongoing investigation and providing updates via social media.

As a former head of international relations and insurance in an international airline and author of Aviation Safety Law and Regulation: A Commentary on the Safety Annexes to the Chicago Convention (Ethics Press: May 2024), I had  three important thoughts stemming from my  experience in my previous incarnation in the air transport industry. I translate them into lessons learned.

Lesson One

Wear your seat belt at all times. Disturbing reports are coming out that passengers were somersaulting in the cabin when the turbulence was going on.  One passenger who suffered a head injury when interviewed by BBC said that one moment the aircraft was smooth and stable and next it went into a steep dive presumably giving no prior notice to the crew and the passengers.  This has given rise to the theory that the cause would have been clear air turbulence which cannot be foreseen  by the technical crew. 

Clear air turbulence (CAT) occurs in clear skies without any visible signs like clouds or storms, typically at high altitudes above 15,000 feet. It is caused by sudden changes in wind speed and direction, making it especially dangerous because it is invisible and can strike without warning, making it hard for pilots to detect and avoid.

Factors contributing to CAT include jet streams, which are narrow bands of strong winds that can cause significant wind shear; mountain waves, which are air currents created by mountains that can extend turbulence over long distances; thermal activity from uneven heating of the Earth’s surface; and weather fronts where different air masses interact. CAT poses a serious risk to aviation, potentially causing severe jolts, injuries, and aircraft damage. Pilots use weather reports and forecasts to try to anticipate and avoid CAT, but its unpredictable nature remains a challenge.

This occurrence shows that passengers should familiarize  themselves (or be familiarized) with the fact that when the “fasten seat belt” sign is switched off, this does not necessarily require them to wander  around randomly  and freely, as they wish. It merely conveys the message that the aircraft has levelled or there is no cogent evidence of bad weather ahead and that they can attend to essentials such as visiting the toilet. 

Lesson Two

In an emergency such as this,  the aviator should strictly adhere to the aphorism in the pilot community, which apparently the flight crew of Flight 321 followed: Aviate; Navigate Communicate. The first priority for pilots is to aviate, meaning they must control the aircraft and ensure it is flying safely by maintaining proper altitude, speed, and direction. Next, they need to navigate, which involves determining the aircraft’s position and planning the correct route, especially in emergencies when finding a safe landing spot or avoiding hazardous weather is crucial. Finally, they should communicate with air traffic control (ATC) or other relevant parties to inform them of the situation, receive instructions, and coordinate assistance. In summary, in any flight situation, particularly emergencies, pilots should first focus on controlling the aircraft, then navigate, and lastly, communicate.

It has been reported that this was exactly what the flight crew did on SQ 321.

Lesson Three

It is important how the airline comes across in its post incident report. Again, Singapore Airlines acted as a prudent and caring airline in its message. In a video message, Singapore Airlines CEO Mr. Goh Choon Phong apologized for the incident, stating the airline is “deeply saddened” and offering his “deepest condolences” to the family and loved ones of the deceased. He said, “We are deeply saddened by this incident. It has resulted in one confirmed fatality, and multiple injuries. On behalf of Singapore Airlines, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased. We are very sorry for the traumatic experience that everyone on board SQ321 went through.”

He further added, “Singapore Airlines will continue to extend all possible support to them [the injured and affected].” Concluding the video message, Phong reiterated, “Once again, our deepest apologies to everyone affected by this incident. Please be assured that Singapore Airlines is here to help and support you during this difficult time.” Thi last sentence in particular is what a caring airline should express.

Each of the above words is exactly what a CEO should express. They embody sympathy, empathy and support.

My Take

Being encumbered with a legal education which includes private international law of air carrier liability, I cannot help examining the liability regime involved. Theflight was between London and Singapore and the Montreal Convention of 1999 applies since both the United Kingdom ( which signed the treaty on 29/4/04 and ratified it on 28/6/04) and Singapore (which signed the treaty on 17/9/07 and ratified it on 16/11/07). 

Under Article 17 of the treaty, the carrier is responsible for damage sustained in the event of a passenger’s death or bodily injury, provided the accident occurred on the aircraft or during embarking or disembarking operations. For damages up to 100,000 Special Drawing Rights per passenger, the carrier cannot exclude or limit its liability. However, the carrier is not liable for damages exceeding 100,000 Special Drawing Rights per passenger if it can prove that: either the damage was not due to its negligence or wrongful actions or those of its employees or agents; or the damage was solely caused by the negligence or wrongful actions of a third party.

The Montreal Convention also provides that in cases of aircraft accidents resulting in passenger death or injury, the carrier must make prompt advance payments, as required by national law, to the individuals entitled to claim compensation to address their immediate economic needs. These payments do not constitute an admission of liability and can be deducted from any future compensation paid by the carrier.

Over the years, Singapore Airlines has been true to its brand which is respected throughout the aviation community and the flying public. The words of the CEO of the airline echo this integrity and leadership.  As Captain Alfred Gilmer is reported to have said in the 1930’s: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect”.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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