The least popular seat on a plane might be the safest

Advice

Although some claim that seats over the wing of an aircraft are best (because the plane is “strongest” there), popular opinion has it that, in the event of a plane crash, the rear of an aircraft is the safest place to be. This theory is supported by several studies, including those looking at the data from real aeroplane disasters. 

An investigation by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) looked at crashes between 1985 and 2020 and found that the middle of the plane was actually the place to avoid. There’s not much in it, however, as while those in the centre had a 39 per cent fatality rate, that figure only dropped one per cent for people at the front. At the back, the fatality rate is 32 per cent. 

The study also revealed that the dreaded middle seat, despite being uncomfortable, increases your odds of survival. Those in the middle seat at the back of the plane only had a 28 per cent fatality rate, making it the least dangerous place to be overall. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: in the deadliest air disaster of all time, for example, two planes collided on the runway in Tenerife in 1977, killing 583 people. The only survivors were at the front of one of the planes. 

Other studies suggest the back is safer. In 2012, a group of television studios including Channel 4 produced The Crash, a programme in which a Boeing 727 carrying cameras, sensors and crash test dummies with breakable “bones” was deliberately ditched in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico. 

After hitting the ground, the front of the plane and the first 11 rows of seats – usually reserved for first-class, business-class or premium-economy passengers – were ripped off. A force of 12G was recorded in this section of the aircraft. Further back, the force fell to around 6G. Experts concluded that none of the plane’s first-class passengers would have survived, but 78 per cent of the other passengers would have, with the chance of survival increasing the closer they were sitting to the rear of the aircraft. 

Despite such research, the world’s two biggest aircraft manufacturers insist that no conclusive evidence is available. 
“One seat is as safe as another,” said a spokesman for Boeing. “Especially if you stay buckled up.” That is an important point. The Channel 4 study in Mexico also saw three dummies placed in the same row, but in different positions: one in the brace position and wearing a seatbelt, one buckled up but sat normally, and one sat normally minus the belt. The unfastened traveller would have been the only one to perish, experts claimed.

Airbus said much the same as its rival, adding dryly: “The safest aircraft is one that doesn’t crash and is well maintained”. Quite. It cited certification processes and evacuation testing – adding that the world’s biggest aircraft, the A380, can be emptied of 850 passengers, in pitch darkness with half the doors closed, in under 90 seconds. 

This evacuation issue is also key. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of plane crashes are survivable. According to a study by the European Transport Safety Council, around 90 per cent are not fatal – and that number is increasing, as newer planes are equipped with state-of-the-art safety equipment. 

Even on the 26 crashes deemed the worst, more than half walked away. So surely a seat close to an exit would be safest? That theory is supported by a University of Greenwich study, commissioned by the CAA. Researchers checked the accounts of 2,000 survivors in 105 accidents around the world. Those sitting more than six rows from an exit were found to be far less likely to survive, though the difference between window and aisle seat was “marginal”. 

To conclude, flying is very safe. In 2018, the Aviation Safety Network found that the chances of being killed on a flight are 1 in 2.52 million. The following year, there were 38.9 million flights performed and only 283 deaths, which makes the practice of flying almost risk-free. 

To be on the safe side, however, sit in economy class, with your seat belt fastened, check where the nearest emergency exit is, and relax.  

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