Plane turbulence is, by far, the most common flying-related fear. Researchers once estimated that 40% of Americans who have flown at least once feel some form of flying-related anxiety while 5% have it so bad it prevents them from flying entirely.
Turbulence, while almost never an indication that something is actually wrong with the flight, is jarring. The feeling of being shaken in the air is profoundly uncomfortable for many. The widespread myths and lack of understanding around what causes it (changes in winds and air pressure) were what pushed the founder of the Dial-A-Pilot program to create a way for laypeople to talk to pilots about their flying fears.
Turbulence depends on everything from the weather to the geography of the area the plane is flying over, so the likelihood of coming across turbulence varies widely depending on the flight route.
A plane flying smoothly above the clouds at sunset.
This is the single most turbulent flight in the U.S. (and the world)
Looking at over 150,000 plane routes across the U.S. and different parts of the world, turbulence tracker and travel platform Turbli just identified the flight from Nashville (BNA) to Raleigh/Durham (RDU) international airport as the single most turbulent route in the U.S.
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Using a ranking system of light (0-20) to extreme (80-100) turbulence levels, the route flying over several mountain ranges had the highest eddy dissipation rate (EDR), or the scientific measure of turbulence, in North America. Another mountainous route, from Colombia’s Santiago to Bolivia’s Santa Cruz, had the highest EDR in the world.
Here is why shorter flights are generally more turbulent than longer ones
Charlotte-Pittsburgh, Denver-Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) and New York-Raleigh/Durham were the other most turbulent routes in North America while Milan-Geneva and Almaty-Bishkek topped the lists in Europe and Asia, respectively. The latter flight from the capitals of Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan only takes 50 minutes and covers 130 miles but is one of the world’s most turbulent.
The most turbulent long-range flight was from Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT) to Nepal’s Kathmandu (KTM) while the Almaty-Bishkek is the most turbulent short-range one.
In general, more short-range flights landed in the top ten of the most turbulent in the world than longer ones because a short time between take-off and landing also contributes to greater turbulence.
No North American routes landed among the most turbulent in the world but routes such as between the Chinese cities of Lanzhou and Chengdu as well as Milan-Geneva topped the list. While there are several different types of turbulence, planes are created to withstand it just like buildings are built to withstand earthquakes.
“Convective turbulence can be far more severe than clear-air turbulence,” former American Airlines spokesperson and weather expert Justin Franco once explained to travel website The Points Guy. “In fact, most incidents of severe air turbulence happen during storms or other severe weather events. The wind flow is not smooth like an airplane wing so it rises and falls in waves. This causes the air pressure to rise and fall as well, causing sudden jolts of movement in the plane.”