November 19, 2017.   Bumps and Bunk.

If you’re one of the millions of flyers made nervous by rough air, maybe you’ve wondered: when is the smoothest time of day to fly? Or, better still, is there a time of day I should avoid? The answer is no, not really. Turbulence is too unpredictable for such blanket cautions.

A recent online story, however, claims otherwise. First run by Business Insider magazine, and picked up again this past weekend by Condé Nast Traveler, the story features an interview with a Professor of Atmospheric Science named Paul Williams, who tells us that early morning flights are the worst, and should be avoided. “The first flight of each day on a particular route tends to be particularly turbulent,” Williams says. He recommends anxious passengers “Avoid flying the first departure from any airport on any route … because that airspace has been unexplored overnight and we generally have no idea how turbulent that atmosphere has been.” Williams explains that pilots, who often rely on reports from other aircraft to help pinpoint and avoid the bumpiest areas, have little to go on so early in the morning. “We don’t have prior knowledge from the previous flight that flew through that route,” he says.

The problem with this advice is that it’s complete bullshit. Airline meteorology departments have become very good at forecasting the where, when, and how bad of rough air, and there are plenty of reliable, real-time reports available from other aircraft, regardless of the time of day. Air travel is very much a 24/7 operation, and commercial airspace is surprisingly busy even in predawn hours. And if anything, the air tends to be slightly smoother, on average, first thing in the morning. Professor Williams claims to have spoken to pilots who back up his contention, but he obviously misconstrued or misunderstood whatever it was they told him.

Aviation can’t be an easy beat for a journalist, but this is yet another example of one turning to the wrong source. I’ve seen so many articles just like these, where instead of seeking out front-line professionals who deal with the topic as a matter of routine (a pilot, perhaps?), the reporter will instead turn to this or that professor, researcher, or other aviation academic. And time and time again their stories suffer for it. I have no doubt that people like Paul Williams are bright, well-trained, and highly knowledgable in their fields (indeed, I enjoyed watching some of Williams’s other online lectures, including one detailing the atmospheric impacts of climate change). Unfortunately, they tend to have very limited knowledge about the day-to-day realities of commercial flying. Understanding atmospheric science, and understanding turbulence in the context of airline operations, are extremely different things.

If you’re one of those nervous flyers, see my essay here, instead.


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