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Are some seats safer than others on a plane?  Does it make a difference where you sit?

The answer to this important question is usually presented in terms of if you should sit in the front, middle or back of a plane.

Here is a discussion on that point plus some additional factors to consider, too.

 
 
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How to Survive a Plane Crash part 2

Which are the safest seats on a plane?
 

A TACA A320 crashed in Honduras when landing in May 2008 - pictured here.

The plane had 140 people on board.  137 survived.

Part two of a four part series on how to survive a plane crash.  See also :

1.  How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2.  The safest seats

3.  Exiting the plane

4.  Bracing and other considerations

 

 

One of the most hotly debated topics about surviving a plane crash is the relative merits of where you sit on the plane.

Some studies purport to show that one part of the plane is safer than another, but because the number of crashes is few, and the range of other factors that contribute to crash survivability is great, the ability to draw statistically reliable conclusions from the small amount of data available is low.

Furthermore, the best evidence available shows little difference in safety/survivability for the different places you might sit on a plane.

But, having said this, there are some factors to consider when choosing your seat that will have a definite impact on your chances of surviving should your plane have an emergency landing somewhere.

Disclaimer :  This article series contains things which are subjective opinions rather than provable repeatable facts, and deals with probabilities rather than certainties.

Different experts sometimes have differing opinions on the optimum strategies for surviving a plane crash.  I'm not an expert, and my selective endorsement of some opinions over others may or may not be correct.

You are best advised to read what follows with an open mind, then supplement it with your own research, and adopt what you feel comfortable with, adapt what you're not so comfortable with, and improve as best you can to fit your needs and your emergency situation.

Good luck.  Let me know, afterwards, what worked for you!

Where is Best/Safest to Sit on the Plane

Rear of the plane

Most people believe the safest place to sit on a plane is in the rear.  The apparent reason most people believe this is they have a perception that when a plane crashes, it is pointing steeply downwards and so the plane hits the ground from the front first, with the most energy being absorbed by the front parts of the plane, and successively less by the rest of the plane back from the front.

Sometimes this is indeed the case.  But not always.  And, by the same token, the rear of the plane is sometimes the safest.  But not always.

Of course, even if the plane does land evenly rather than plunge nose first into the ground, the plane's forward motion (probably 150 mph or more at the time of landing) means for sure that if the plane hits something on the ground, it will probably be the front of the plane that absorbs the most of the impact.

There's a downside to sitting at the back of the plane, though.  Not only does it mean you'll be last off the plane (which doesn't really matter if you then have to go to baggage claim and wait 15 minutes for your bags), but the rear of the plane is usually the noisiest part of the plane, has more people walking up and down the aisle (to/from the toilets and perhaps to see the flightcrew in the rear galley area), and the rear also moves about the most during turbulence.  It can be calm in the front of the plane while the back of the plane is moving appreciably.

In most cases, it is also the last part on the plane to get food and drink service, so your choices may be more limited by the time the flight attendants get to your seat.

Middle - over the wings

There's a smaller faction of travelers who believe that being seated in the middle part of the plane, where the wings are, is the safest.  They reason that this is the strongest part of the plane, and so therefore will give the best protection in a crash.

That is sometimes true.

Front of the plane

Few if any people advocate the front of the plane as the safest part.  But, let's not lose our sense of proportion here.

On your next flight, your chances of it crashing are perhaps one in a million, give or take a bit.  If you've a free first class upgrade opportunity, are you going to turn it down just so you can sit in a possibly safer seat at the very back of the plane?  Probably not.

Nowhere/anywhere

And then there are people who say 'it doesn't matter where I sit' and that may well be as close to true as any of the other theories.

Analyzing past crashes

Popular Mechanics conducted an analysis of every passenger jet crash in the US between 1971 and 2006 for which it could obtain information on where passengers were seated and which ones survived.  In total, this gave them data from 20 crashes to work with.

They separated the cabin into four sections - the front 15%, the section behind that but ahead of the wings, the over-wing section, and the section behind that (ie the back of the plane).  They found survivor rates of 49% for the front most, 56% for both the area behind the front most section and for the area over the wings, and 69% for the area behind the wings.

This would seem to support the belief that the rear of the plane is safest.  But the sample size used to create these statistics, and the variety of choices available as to how it was analyzed, and the wide spread in actual crash results (from some where passengers in the front were much better than those in the back, to crashes with random results, to crashes where the passengers in the rear were much better off) suggests that this data has a fairly large amount of uncertainty associated with it, and so while interesting, it is not a compelling argument in favor of seats at the back of the plane being safer.

Another variation that needs to be factored in is the evolving standards for airplane seat construction and their ability to withstand the shock of crash landings (isn't that a delightful oxymoron of a phrase!), and similarly the evolution in airplane design in general.  The results from 1971, possibly involving planes dating back 10 - 20 years, are clearly less relevant than results in 2009, possibly involving state of the art planes, their airframes, and the seats within them.

Here is the Popular Mechanics article that reports on their findings.

Bulkhead rows

It would be helpful to see if the PM article mentioned above did any analysis of the relative safety of 'normal' seats and of bulkhead row seats.  When you look at images of crash dummies being tested in simulated crashes, having a seat in front of you can either be a good or a bad thing.  If you don't have a proper 'brace' position, hitting the seat in front can damage you.  But if you do have a proper brace position, it seems likely that the seat in front can be used to absorb the energy of the impact.

So the good and bad news of being in a bulkhead row is that you possibly don't have anything in front of you to hit, but you also have nothing to support yourself either.  Does this make a bulkhead row seat more or less safe?  The jury is still out on that issue; but next time you're in a bulkhead row why not practice bracing against the bulkhead and see how well you could position yourself in a brace position, then make your own decision for the future.

Rearward facing seats

This factor was also not part of the PM study, probably because they are so rare; but if you have a chance to sit in a rear-facing seat, you might want to do this for best safety.

Such seats can be found in British Airways' business class, where seats alternate between facing forwards and rearwards, and also in their subsidiary OpenSkies, but are seldom seen on other airlines.

Most passengers prefer to be seated in the direction of travel, which has limited the wider introduction of such seats.

Window or aisle seating

The PM study did not consider this either, but anecdotal considerations by air crash survivability experts suggest that it is generally preferable to be closer to an aisle.

This is because you can more readily get into the aisle and start moving towards the emergency exits if you're adjacent to an aisle.  But if you've two other passengers between you and the aisle, and one of them is a large sized person, filling their seat, who has either become incapacitated or in some other way is not responding appropriately, your path to the airplane exit has become more complicated (hint - in such cases, consider scrambling over the seats directly rather than waiting to get to the aisle).

Engine Proximity

Extremely rarely, an engine might suffer an uncontained failure such that some part of the engine breaks off and flies away.  Engines are designed to try and contain any failures inside themselves, but once in a while, parts of an engine might go flying away in all directions, generally out to the sides.

With that in mind, you might prefer not to be seated so you're in a direct line of sight straight line from the engine to your part of the fuselage.

In particular, if you're on a DC9/MD80/MD90, you might want to avoid sitting at the rear with the engines immediately outside and alongside.

Seated together rather than apart

If you are traveling with other people who you believe are less well able to fend for themselves in an emergency, you should endeavor to have them seated with you rather than somewhere else on the plane.

You know how hard it is to 'go against the flow' when passengers are leaving a plane at the end of a normal trip.  Imagine how much harder it would be to do that when your fellow passengers are rushing to evacuate a plane that is filling with smoke and flames.  It just won't be possible.

The people you are traveling with - and you - need to understand that if they're not in the same or next row, then they are on their own; they should do the best they can to exit the plane from where they are, and you should do the same from where you are, and you should meet on the ground outside the plane.

If you do need to split your group into two different seating locations, try to have a designated 'group leader' person at each place.  In other words (and as unpopular as this decision might be for all concerned) rather than having the adults in one part and the children in another, you should have an adult in each part.

Probably the safest seats on any plane

Again, it seems the PM study failed to consider one of the most important seat location factors.  The proximity of a seat to an exit.

This is a very easy issue to understand.  The closer you are seated to an emergency exit, the better your chances of surviving a crash.  The three or four rows closest to an emergency exit all have comparably high chances of crash survivors safely exiting the plane, but when you move beyond this, your chances drop measurably for each extra row, and by the time you're seven or eight rows away from an exit, your chances of safely exiting a crashed plane have been greatly reduced.  The good news is that it is relatively uncommon for planes to have those sorts of distances between exits - usually you'll find there are exit rows every 12 - 15 rows, so in the middle of a 15 row block you're still just 7 rows either side of an exit.  But it would still be better to be a few rows closer to an exit.

You don't have to actually be in the exit row, just close to it.

Note that your proximity to an exit is a combination of how many rows away the exit is and also how far you are from the aisle.  If you're not on an aisle seat, you might consider that each seat further away from the aisle is perhaps equivalent to being another half row further away from the exit.

Part two of a four part series on how to survive a plane crash.  See also :

1.  How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2.  The safest seats

3.  Exiting the plane

4.  Bracing and other considerations

 

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Originally published 30 Jan 2009, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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