The team at Aviation Law Group is learning more about the Singapore Airlines (Flight SQ321) that hit severe turbulence on Tuesday, May 18, 2024, while in cruise flight over the Andaman Sea. This turbulence incident was extreme, and the injuries were astonishing injuries: one passenger died, and over 80 of the 229 persons on board went to the hospital in Bangkok, where the flight diverted on its flight from London Heathrow to Singapore.

The flight, which left Heathrow Airport on Monday at 10:38 p.m. local time, encountered turbulence approximately 10 hours into its journey from London to Singapore, over the Irrawaddy Basin in Myanmar at an altitude of 37,000 feet. The turbulence caused the plane to rapidly descend to roughly 31,000 feet in only a few minutes, leading the pilot to declare a medical emergency and divert to Bangkok. Kittipong Kittikachorn, the director of Bangkok’s airport, described the scene on the plane as “a mess” and confirmed that the man who died was aboard the flight, while his wife was injured and taken to a hospital.

Upon landing, the injured were treated at Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital in Bangkok, while other passengers and crew were examined and treated at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Only 143 persons continued to Singapore, and 85 remained in Bangkok. Many underwent emergency surgery, and others were planning urgent care surgery. It is not known if the 4 Americans on board were injured and stayed in Bangkok.

Singapore’s Ministry of Transport announced it would send investigators to Bangkok. Because the aircraft was a Boeing 777 made in the U.S., the NTSB was planning to send a representative and four technical advisors to assist in the investigation.

Damage to the galley of the aircraft. Source; Reuters

ALG has Concerns about the Preservation of Cockpit Data

After the accident, passengers apparently reported that the seatbelt sign had come on just before the turbulence hit. While Aviation Law Group does not guess or speculate on aircraft accidents, especially with limited facts, some facts like this raise a plethora of questions regarding what information was known and available to the pilots in the cockpit before the aircraft flew into turbulence.

While the investigation is just getting underway, Aviation Law Group is concerned that some of the relevant cockpit data information may not have been saved or recorded, giving investigators a less-than-complete picture of exactly what went on. Some of the instruments in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft and the data they provide are not recorded by the Flight Data Recorder. Moreover, cockpit voice recording is only mandated to record 2 hours of time in the cockpit.

“We have seen this on other turbulence accidents. The current regulation that governs the use of flight data recorders, CFR 125.226, does not mandate the recording of in-flight weather radar data. Thus, some of the information available to the pilots may not available to investigators.

Casey DuBose, ALG Aviation Attorney and Adjunct Professor of Aviation Law

With the noted increase in severe turbulence incidents and accidents worldwide, Mr. DuBose believes that a change is needed so that this data can be used, analyzed, and possibly put into open datasets that could be used to train AI, which could help warn pilots of developing dangerous turbulence well in advance of flying into it.

Legal Implications of International Flights

Source: Flickr

For most passengers, any claims against the airline would likely be subject to the Montreal Convention, which is an international treaty that most countries have signed which unifies certain rules and sets forth the parameters of legal claims and airline liability for passengers injured or killed during air travel on an international ticket. ALG attorney Robert Hedrick, who teaches a law course that includes a study of the Montreal Convention, stated: “When there is an accident, under Article 21 of the Convention, the air carrier is normally strictly liable up to a certain sum (currently approximately $132,000 U.S. dollars), after which the air carrier can only avoid further liability by proving that it was not at fault. This shifting of the burden to prove no fault is very important in turbulence cases, especially when fault is difficult to prove or disprove,” Hedrick said. The interplay of Montreal Convention law and U.S. maritime law may also come into play for those cases that may have jurisdiction in the U.S., including any claims of U.S. citizens who were on board.

Recent research suggests that turbulence incidents are increasing, potentially due to climate change and elevated carbon dioxide emissions affecting air currents. Just two months ago, a LATAM Airlines flight from Sydney to Santigo experienced extreme turbulence, injuring 50 people.

Aviation Law Group has handled many passenger turbulence injury claims. It is currently involved in representing numerous passengers who were injured in the last major turbulence incident on a US-based airline: the Hawaiian Airlines Flight 35 accident that occurred near Hawaii on December 18, 2022, which injured more than 36 people.  Moreover, ALG also represents numerous passengers who were on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, when its door came off in flight on January 5, 2024.

Aviation Law Group (ALG) is a law firm with attorneys licensed in California, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, and Florida with offices in Washington State, Florida, and Hawaii that limits its law practice to aviation accident cases around the world. For over 30 years, the attorneys at Aviation Law Group have litigated complex aviation accidents for victims and victims’ families.