Eleven people have been seriously injured after severe turbulence rocked a flight between the US cities of Phoenix and Honolulu, in what a Hawaiian Airlines official called an isolated and unusual event.
Jon Snook, the airline’s chief operating officer, said on Sunday the airline has not experienced “an incident of this nature in recent history”.
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The flight was full, carrying 278 passengers and 10 crew members, he said during an afternoon news conference.
Jim Ireland, director of Honolulu Emergency Medical Services, said 20 people were taken to hospitals, including 11 people deemed to be in serious condition.
At least one person was reported to have been rendered unconscious but all patients were awake and talking when they arrived at hospitals, he said.
Patients suffered cuts, including to the head, as well as bumps and bruises. Some people were nauseous and vomited as a result of extreme motion, he said. Altogether, 36 people received treatment.
“We are also very happy and we feel fortunate that there were not any deaths or other critical injuries. And we’re also very hopeful that all will … make a full recovery,” Ireland said.
Snook said three flight attendants were among those taken to hospitals.
Passenger Kaylee Reyes told Hawaii News Now that her mother had just sat down when the turbulence hit and did not have a chance to buckle her safety belt.
“She flew up and hit the ceiling,” Reyes said.
Snook said there was some internal damage to the aircraft during the turbulence. The seatbelt sign was on at the time, though some of those injured weren’t wearing them.
Thomas Vaughan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu, said there had been a weather advisory for thunderstorms that included Oahu and areas that would have included the flight path at the time of the incident.
The airline was aware of the weather forecast and the unstable air and weather conditions, but had no warning the particular patch of air where the turbulence occurred “was in any way dangerous”, Snook said.
He did not know how much altitude the plane lost during the turbulence, saying that would be part of an investigation involving the National Transportation Safety Board. The plane’s flight data recorder would provide those details, he said.
The investigation would also address precisely what the passengers and crew were doing at the time, he said.
The Airbus A330-200 began its descent immediately after the turbulence and the crew declared an emergency because of the number of injuries on board. Air traffic controllers gave the flight priority to land.
The aircraft will undergo a thorough inspection and maintenance, mostly to fix components in the cabin, Snook said.
He added that he could only speculate whether some passengers hit their heads, but that was likely based on the injuries and the damage to cabin paneling.
“If you don’t have your seatbelt on, you stay where you are as the aircraft goes down and that’s how those injuries occur,” Snook said.
The investigation will examine what other measures were taken, aside from turning on the “fasten seatbelt” sign, to ensure passengers were buckled in, he said.
In 2019, 37 passengers and flight crew members were injured when an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney, Australia, hit intense turbulence about two hours past Hawaii. The Boeing 777-200 was diverted to Honolulu, where the injured received treatment. Thirty people were taken to hospitals and nine had serious injuries.
Over the Atlantic, a 2017 American Airlines flight from Athens hit severe turbulence along the New York coastline. Seven crew members and three passengers were injured.
Most people associate turbulence with heavy storms. But the most dangerous type is so-called clear-air turbulence, which aircraft can fly into without warning.
The wind-shear phenomenon can occur in wispy cirrus clouds or even clear air near thunderstorms, as differences in temperature and pressure create powerful currents of fast-moving air.