One dead and several injured in severe turbulence on London to Singapore flight

Boeing 777-300ER diverted and landed in Bangkok after passengers reported being launched into ceiling when it dropped in altitude

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An investigation has been launched after one passenger died and dozens were injured when a Singapore Airlines flight from London hit severe turbulence on Tuesday.

The flight from London's Heathrow Airport to Singapore Changi Airport was forced to make an emergency landing at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport at 15.45 hours local time, following the incident.

The twin-engined Boeing 777-300ER was carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew when it fell into an air pocket as the crew were serving breakfast.

Singapore said it will send investigators to Bangkok. The airline and Boeing expressed their condolences.

"The Transport Safety Investigation Bureau is in touch with its Thai counterparts and will be deploying investigators to Bangkok," the Transport Ministry said.

Singapore Airlines said: “Singapore Airlines flight SQ321, operating from London Heathrow to Singapore on May 20, encountered severe turbulence en route.

“We can confirm that there are injuries and one fatality on board.

“Singapore Airlines offers its deepest condolences to the family of the deceased.”

Suvarnabhumi Airport's general manager Kittipong Kittikachorn said one man, confirmed as British, had died from a suspected heart attack, while seven people were left critically injured after sustaining head injuries. One crew member was also hospitalised, he said.

Nine crew members and 23 passengers suffered moderate injuries. Sixteen other people with less serious injuries received hospital treatment, while another 14 were treated at the airport.

The British man, identified as Geoff Kitchen, 73, is believed to have suffered a heart attack on the flight, according to a spokesman for Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office representative said it was supporting the family of the passenger and was in contact with local authorities.

“Our deepest condolences go out to all those who have been affected," a representative for the UK Civil Aviation Authority said.

“Accidents of this nature are extremely rare and aviation remains one of the safest forms of travel.”

'Sudden, dramatic drop'

About 11 hours after take-off in London, the aircraft sharply dropped from an altitude of about 11,250 metres to about 9,450 metres within five minutes as it finished traversing the Andaman Sea and approached Thailand, according to data from aircraft tracking website FlightRadar24.

Passenger Dzafran Azmir, 28, a student, said the incident happened very suddenly.

“Suddenly the aircraft started tilting up and there was shaking so I started bracing for what was happening,” he said.

“Very suddenly, there was a very dramatic drop, so everyone seated and not wearing a seat belt was launched immediately into the ceiling.

“Some people hit their heads on the baggage cabins overhead and dented it, they hit the places where lights and masks are and broke straight through it.

"The crew and people inside lavatories were hurt the most because we discovered people just on the ground not able to get up. There were a lot of spinal and head injuries."

Images posted on social media showed damage to the ceiling of the cabin, and food, cutlery and other debris strewn on the floor after the incident.

Once the plane was on the tarmac, nurses and rescue workers came in to check on the injured.

"I don't think they anticipated how bad it was," he said.

Ambulances later arrived and Mr Azmir said he saw at least eight people on stretchers being pulled out of the emergency exits. It took 90 minutes to evacuate the plane, he said.

Singapore's President Tharman Shanmugaratnam has offered his condolences in a post on social media.

"I am greatly saddened by the loss of a life caused by the severe turbulence on board the SQ321 flight from London earlier today, and the injuries caused to several others," he said in a statement.

"My deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased. We must hope and pray that the passengers or crew members who were injured are able to recover smoothly.

"We do not have the details of those affected, but know that the government ministries and agencies, as well as SIA, are doing their utmost to support all those affected and working with the authorities in Bangkok, where the plane had been diverted to."

I am greatly saddened by the loss of a life caused by the severe turbulence on board the SQ321 flight from London...

Posted by Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Thailand's Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungruangkit said in a statement that Singapore would send another plane later on Tuesday night to transport the lightly injured and non-injured passengers to the city-state's Changi Airport.

Singapore Airlines said that the nationalities of the passengers are: 56 Australians, two Canadians, one German, three Indians, two Indonesians, one from Iceland, four from Ireland, one Israeli, 16 Malaysians, two from Myanmar, 23 from New Zealand, five Filipinos, 41 from Singapore, one South Korean, two Spaniards, 47 from the UK and four from the US.

Is turbulence exposure rising?

Turbulence-related airline accidents are the most common type, according to a 2021 study by the National Transportation Safety Board.

From 2009 through 2018, the US agency found that turbulence accounted for more than a third of reported airline accidents. Most resulted in one or more serious injuries, but little aircraft damage.

Aviation consultant John Strickland said “turbulence happens” but with millions of flights operated each year, incidents are “limited” and “fatalities are rare”.

“Exposure is greater in different parts of the world,” he said.

“The South Atlantic, Africa and the Bay of Bengal are all places that spring to mind where there’s a greater incidence.

“There are discussions about whether climate change is influencing an increase in occurrences.”

Mr Strickland said airlines use several methods to minimise the chances of a flight being affected by turbulence, such as weather forecasts, radar and reports from aircraft ahead.

“It can never be taken lightly when airlines recommend you keep the seat belt loosely fastened throughout the flight,” he said.

Singapore Airlines, which is widely recognised as one of the world's leading airlines and is a benchmark for much of the industry, has not had any major incidents in recent years.

Its last accident resulting in casualties was a flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, via Taipei in 2000.

It crashed into construction equipment at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport after trying to take off from the wrong runway, killing 83 of the 179 people on board.

Singapore Airlines has had seven accidents according to records by the Aviation Safety Network.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 7:37 AM