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7 in hospital as turbulence forces Lufthansa plane to divert to Dulles

The FAA is investigating the incident, which happened on a flight headed from Austin to Frankfurt, Germany, as passengers were wrapping up dinner

Food trays and other items are scattered inside the cabin as Lufthansa Flight 469 was diverted to Dulles International Airport. (Ecaterina Fadhel/AP)
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Passengers were wrapping up dinner aboard Lufthansa Flight 469 when the plane dropped suddenly, sending pasta and chicken curry flying through the air.

Samantha Pinto, seated by the window in Row 33, took a deep breath and tried to calm herself, thinking the worst was over.

It wasn’t.

Over the next several minutes Wednesday evening, the plane was rocked by turbulence so rough that seven people were taken to hospitals.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the flight from Austin en route to Frankfurt, Germany, was diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport after encountering severe turbulence as it flew over Tennessee at an altitude of about 37,000 feet. The Airbus A330 eventually touched down at about 9:10 p.m., ending a harrowing stretch for 172 passengers and 12 crew members.

On Thursday, Pinto recalled terrifying scenes: A baby flying out of a bassinet, and the child’s mother reaching out to quickly grab the baby from the air. People praying and crying as they held onto each other, bracing themselves for whatever might follow.

A Lufthansa flight from Austin to Frankfurt, Germany, diverted to Dulles International Airport on March 1 after encountering severe turbulence. (Video: AP)

“I seriously thought we were going to die,” said Pinto, a 29-year-old MBA student at the University of Texas at Austin who was headed to Rome with her boyfriend to meet with a school group.

Seven people were hospitalized for what airline officials characterized as minor injuries. The FAA said it is investigating the incident.

Just how dangerous is turbulence?

In an emailed statement, Lufthansa said that the flight “encountered brief but severe turbulence about 90 minutes after takeoff” and that the crew “made an unscheduled landing at Washington Dulles International Airport as a precautionary measure.”

Radar images of the area the flight passed over showed significant storm activity.

Pinto said the captain told passengers that the flight had run into an “unanticipated” storm pattern over Tennessee. She said the flight eventually evened out, but some turbulence continued for about 30 more minutes.

Flight-tracking website FlightAware showed the aircraft taking a route over Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. As the aircraft crossed into southwestern Pennsylvania, it veered west, flying a figure-eight over Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, and then headed east toward Dulles.

Photos posted to social media showed the cabin littered with food containers and newspapers.

Stryker Fadhel said his wife, who was a passenger on the flight, told him that people were having dinner when, without warning, the aircraft encountered the significant turbulence. Those who weren’t wearing seat belts were thrown around — some hitting the top of the plane, he said she told him. His wife was wearing her seat belt and wasn’t injured, he said.

A passenger who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that Lufthansa would not provide compensation said someone in the seat in front of them was “badly hurt,” with blood spattered over the seat. The injured person was taken off the plane in a wheelchair, the passenger said.

Among the passengers were actor Matthew McConaughey and his wife, Camila. In an Instagram post, she shared a video of food scattered in the cabin and wrote: “On Flight last night, plane dropped almost 4,000 feet, 7 people went to hospital, Everything was flying everywhere.”

The carrier apologized for the inconvenience and rebooked passengers onto other flights.

While uncommon, such cases of severe turbulence aren’t unprecedented. In December, 36 people were injured after a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu hit turbulence about 30 minutes before landing.

According to a 2021 report by the National Transportation Safety Board, despite steady improvements in the overall accident rate for commercial passenger carriers in the United States, turbulence continues to be a large cause of accidents and injuries on aircraft. Between 2009 and 2018, turbulence-related incidents accounted for more than one-third of accidents reported, the report said.

The NTSB offered several recommendations to reduce turbulence-related injuries, including encouraging better sharing of information about turbulence observations and the need for the FAA to update guidance on lessons learned from previous incidents.

The FAA said it has worked in recent years to reduce the number of turbulence-related injuries in several ways, including improved data collection and modernizing its Pilot Report system, which enables pilots to communicate weather conditions and turbulence.

Katerina Ang, Annabelle Timsit and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.