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How dangerous is flight turbulence? Everything B.C. travellers need to know

"You should always use your seat belt even when the seat belt sign is off."
Find out what to know about travel insurance and the risks of flying in 2024 after the Singapore Airlines turbulence left one man dead and others injured.

Turbulence on a recent Singapore Airlines flight caused one fatality and multiple injuries but experts say the risk of suffering significant injuries on flights is low. 

The flight from London's Heathrow Airport to Singapore hit severe turbulence over the Indian Ocean and descended 6,000 feet in about three minutes, the airline said Tuesday, May 22.

A 73-year-old British man died and may have suffered a heart attack, although the cause of death has not been confirmed. 

Emergency services also rushed dozens of passengers to hospital with severe injuries after the plane landed in Bangkok, Thailand.

But a Vancouver expert in emergency medical services says severe injuries on commercial flights are extraordinarily rare — provided passengers are healthy. 

Flying can exaggerate pre-existing conditions 

University of British Columbia (UBC) clinical assistant professor Anthony Fong tells V.I.A. that some people may experience a medical emergency on a flight for a reason unrelated to turbulence. 

"Pre-existing medical conditions can get worse," he notes, adding that anyone with undiagnosed chest pain or other health concerns should consult a doctor before booking a ticket. 

People with colds or other viruses will also feel worse during flights as the pressure in the cabin causes ear pain.

Fong adds that the process of flying can be stressful. Passengers may walk more than they are used to and carry heavy luggage. They also have to navigate busy airports and pass through security. 

"My first thought is mainstream commercial jet flights are safe," he notes. "But you should always use your seat belt even when the seat belt sign is off. Keep luggage stowed when you're not using it."

Flight fatalities are extremely rare

The International Air Transport Association reported five fatalities in 32.2 million flights in 2022. The fatality risk of 0.11 means a person would need to take an average of a "flight every day for 25,214 years to experience a 100% fatal accident."

While deaths and severe injuries from turbulence are uncommon, people may experience pain if they fall on a plane or hit their head. If a person experiences blunt trauma to the head or if a part of their body hits an object they should seek medical attention. They should also see a doctor if they experience pain, nausea, vomiting, or dizziness following a flight.

According to Fong, passengers may not feel the effects of turbulence until several hours later.

"I can draw parallels to fender benders or being rear-ended. [You may] not feel anything right after. Your body tenses up and the strain isn't felt initially but you could get sore afterwards."

Will travel insurance cover flight turbulence?

Will McAleer, executive director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada, says travellers will need more than just medical coverage for trips involving flights. 

If a passenger experiences a medical emergency during a flight, a medical plan will cover their hospital expenses and other costs related to transporting them to a hospital. However, it won't cover the cost of a new flight or recoup the cost of hotel accommodation or other pre-booked activities. If the turbulence causes a delay for a connecting flight, they may also need to book another option. 

"Travellers might miss all or part of a trip they are going on. Are they going to protect you against part of a missed cruise? [They need] trip cancellation and interruption coverage for emergencies," he said.

"Accidents happen and they can happen in can [also] happen when you are jet-lagged and need to drive on the wrong side of the road."

Travellers may also need to stay at their destination until they are healthy enough to travel. Comprehensive travel medical insurance will cover the cost of having an individual stay in a destination and a flight home once they get discharged. Some plans include coverage to fly loved ones to them while they receive care.

While Singapore Airlines will likely take care of the passengers injured on its recent flight, travellers must ensure they aren't stranded at the eleventh hour — even if airlines or other travel suppliers have a responsibility, McAleer said. 

B.C. residents who fly across Canada and do not purchase travel insurance may incur hefty bills receiving emergency medical care in other provinces, including ground and air ambulances or medications issued post-discharge from hospitals.

When selecting an insurance provider, travellers must be honest about their health to determine if they will be covered for any pre-existing conditions.

"So when you're answering a medical questionnaire, you do so correctly," McAleer said.

With files from the Associated Press