Severe turbulence rocked Phoenix and Honolulu on Sunday, seriously injuring 11 people in what a Hawaiian Airlines official described as an isolated and unusual event.
John Snook, the airline’s chief operating officer, said the airline had not experienced “an incident of this nature in recent history.” He said in an afternoon news conference that the flight was packed with 278 passengers and 10 crew members.
Twenty people have been taken to hospitals, including 11 who are believed to be in serious condition, said Jim Ireland, director of Honolulu Emergency Medical Services.
He added that at least one person had been reported to have lost consciousness, but all the patients were awake and talking when they arrived at the hospital.
The patients had head injuries, bruises and bruises. He said some people had developed nausea and vomiting from the excessive movement. A total of 36 people received treatment.
“We are also very happy and feel fortunate that there were no deaths or other serious injuries. We also hope that everyone will recover and make a full recovery,” Ireland said.
Snook said three flight attendants were among those taken to the hospital.
Passenger Kylie Reyes told Hawaii News Now her mom had just sat down when turbulence hit and didn’t have a chance to fasten her seat belt.
“It just flew off and hit the ceiling,” Reyes said.
Snook said the plane sustained internal damage during the turbulence. He said the seat belt sign was signed at the time, though some of the injured people did not wear it.
There was a weather warning for thunderstorms that included Oahu and areas that would have included the flight path at the time of the accident, said Thomas Vaughan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
Snook said the airline was aware of the unsettled weather forecast and conditions, but did not warn that the weather area where the disturbances occurred was “in no way dangerous.”
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. He said the plane’s flight data recorder would provide those details.
He said the investigation would focus in particular on what the passengers and crew were doing at the time.
He said the Airbus A330-200 began descending immediately after the turbulence occurred and the crew declared an emergency due to the number of casualties on board. Air traffic controllers gave priority to the landing flight.
Snook said the aircraft will undergo extensive inspection and maintenance, primarily to repair cabin components.
Snook said he could only speculate if some passengers hit their heads, but that was likely based on injuries and damage to cabin panels.
“If you don’t have a seat belt, you’re going to stay in place during the crash and that’s why these injuries happen,” Snook said.
He said the investigation would look at what other steps were taken, in addition to opening the buckle panel, to ensure the passengers were tethered.
In 2019, 37 passengers and crew were injured when an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney experienced severe turbulence about two hours from Hawaii. The Boeing 777-200 was diverted to Honolulu, where the injured were treated. Thirty people were taken to hospital and nine were seriously injured.
Over the Atlantic, a 2017 American Airlines flight from Athens experienced severe turbulence along the New York coast. Seven crew members and three passengers were injured.
Most people associate turbulence with severe storms. But the most dangerous kind is the so-called clear air turbulence. Wind shear can occur in cumulonimbus clouds or even in clear air near thunderstorms, where temperature and pressure differences create strong, fast-moving air currents.
Aircraft can navigate through light turbulence without warning.