Which are the safest seats during an airplane crash?

Reading Time: 10 min.

My suitcase is ready, my passport is here, all I have to do is to reserve my seat. You see, I’m flying back to Athens tomorrow, so it’s time for my online check-in. Most of the times I choose my seat having in mind the leg room. I always want the maximum space for a really relaxed travel, you know. But, what if I wanted to reserve the safest seat? What if I was looking for this specific seat which will offer me the best odds of surviving an airplane crash

Of course, if someone asks the airline or the manufacturer, they would probably say that there is no such thing as the safest seat since all seats meet aviation standards and survivability depends on the circumstances of the accident. Sure! But these answers don’t satisfy me. So, in order to find some real answers to our question we have to examine the seats according to their direction, the section of the plane and the row position.

Forward-Facing vs Rear-Facing

Let’s say that we have the option to choose between a forward-facing and a rear-facing seat, which one would be the safest? This is an easy one. Of course forward facing! That’s why you don’t find aft-facing seats in most airliners. It has to do with safety, right? …Wrong! 

Here is a great paradigm:
On February 6th of 1958, the Manchester United football team was returning from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade. Due to extreme weather conditions in Munich airport the airplane crashed on its third attempt to take off. 23 people lost their lives. 21 survived the crash. This incident is now known as the Munich air disaster. What is interesting about this case? The fact that all passengers who were facing backward managed to survive. Those who were facing forward, including both pilots, didn’t.

But, this information isn’t something new. We already know that rear-facing seats are much safer than conventional practice and this is the reason why newborns face backward in automobiles. The pressure is evenly distributed during the crash and the forces are much lower. This position has so many advantages that some experts recommend extending the use of rear-facing child car seats till the age of 5. Rear-facing seats can also be found in some military aircraft and corporate jets for the same reasons.

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Forward-Facing Crash Simulation
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Rear-Facing Crash Simulation

Then, why airline companies don’t use Rear-Facing seats? Why don’t we have access to the safest choice? Of course, we are talking about the small number of crashes which develop forces higher than a forward-seated person can take but still low enough for the rear-seated person to survive. In any case, shouldn’t the airlines provide us the safest solution?

FLIGHT International, 20 August 1964

“There is a harsh axiom in the world of civil air transport: preservation of factual income is more important than occasional preservation of life.”

When the airplane decelerates, a forward facing passenger applies a force on the seat’s structure through the seatbelt, which is attached lower than the passenger’s center of gravity. On the other hand, a rear facing passenger would apply forces directly to the back of the seat. The forces in the second case are much higher on the seat and this has some serious consequences.

rear facing
a) The forward facing passenger is held by a two-point restraint; b) The rearward-facing passenger remain sitting vertically; AMD Health, Vol.8, November 2007

The airlines would have to reinforce their seats and the floor beneath them. This would make the aircraft heavier, and it would have to carry either more fuel or fewer passengers. Which means more costs or less income. Either way, not something that an airline company would choose to do by itself.

Nose vs Tail

Since we answered the question about which direction is better, we have to find the safest section of the plane. To do so, we have to search for airplane crashes which had both fatalities and survivors and of course, detailed seating records. Popular Mechanics magazine, analyzed the data from 20 airplane crashes which had these characteristics and concluded that:

Popular Mechanics, 17 July 2007

“Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front.”  

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Survival rates for various parts of the passenger cabin, based on an analysis of all commercial jet crashes in the United States since 1971 where detailed seating charts were available. (Illustration by Gil Ahn. Diagram Courtesy of seatguru.com)

The reason is quite simple. In a crash landing, the airplane will most likely hit the ground with its nose. After hitting the ground the fuselage will start to deform, absorbing some amount of the forces produced by the impact. The first seats, the first-class and business-class, will be subjected to the largest amount of force. So, seating closer to the tail increases your chances of surviving the accident.

However, there is one more factor which should be taken into consideration. The distance from the closest exit. You probably think that after an airplane crash sitting close to the exit wouldn’t matter so much, but a statistic analysis by US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shows that of all 568 plane crashes in the US between 1983 and 2000, 95.7% of airplane occupants survived and that in the most serious accidents, 55.6 % of the occupants survived.

survivors
Number of survivors and fatalities for all accidents involving U.S. carrier flights (cargo and passenger) operating under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121, 1983 through 2000. Safety Report NTSB/SR-01/01

Then, how close to the emergency exit should we sit? According to the University of Greenwich, after checking the accounts of 2000 survivors in 156 accidents around the globe, concludes that sitting more than 6 rows from an exit decreases significantly the chances of surviving the crash. So the answer is: As close as possible!

Window vs Aisle

Better view or extra legroom? This question seems difficult to answer and unfortunately even more difficult is to tell which seat is safer; the one closest to the aisle or the one next to the window?

If we want the have a statistically correct answer then, neither of them. According to a research conducted by Time magazine, the safest seats are those in the middle row and at the back of the airplane. This study shows that an aisle seat in the middle of the airplane is historically 36% less safe than a seat closer to the tail and in the middle row. Which is quite logical if you consider that the passengers sitting in window seats will need more time to evacuate the airplane in case of an emergency, and the aisle is more vulnerable to falling luggage or out-of-control dining carts.

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Taking into consideration all the factors we mentioned, a rear-facing seat, close to the rear exit and in the middle row, would provide us the best chances of surviving an airplane crash. Of course, always in combination with a fastened seatbelt and good knowledge of the brace position and the evacuation procedure. And don’t forget that flying is the safest way to travel! Statistically speaking, “a passenger could fly every single day for an average of 123.000 years before dying in a plane accident”.

However, new questions come to my mind as a result of this answer.

What should we do during the evacuation of an airplane? Does the brace position really help during a crash landing? Why do we have to open all window shades and place seat backs and tray tables in their upright position during take-off and landing?

If you want to find the answers to this questions and have access to more interesting stuff, then follow this blog and find me in the social media at the end of this page. If you liked this post don’t forget to leave your comment below as well as any questions you want me to answer in my upcoming posts.

For further reading about rear facing seats in aircraft, I would highly recommend this article from the ADF Health.

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