A public service announcement, “Safest Seat on a Plane: PM Investigates How to Survive a Crash.” from Popular Mechanics:
In the wake of nearly 200 passenger deaths in a Brazilian airliner accident, we take an exclusive look at 36 years’ worth of NTSB reports and seating charts. The best way to live through a disaster in the sky? Move to the back of the Airbus.
MYTH: It Doesn’t Matter Where You Sit
“It’s like a lottery to pick your seat.”
-Nora Marshall, passenger survival expert, National Transportation Safety Board
“One seat is as safe as the other.”
-Boeing Web site
“It’s an age-old question. There’s just no way to say.”
-Federal Aviation Administration spokesman
“There is no safest seat.”
REALITY: It’s Safer In the Back
The funny thing about all those expert opinions: They’re not really based on hard data about actual airline accidents. A look at real-world crash stats, however, suggests that the farther back you sit, the better your odds of survival. 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.
That’s the conclusion of an exclusive Popular Mechanics study that examined every commercial jet crash in the United States, since 1971, that had both fatalities and survivors….
For several weeks, we poured over reports filed by NTSB crash investigators, as well as seating charts that showed where each passenger sat and whether they lived or died. We then calculated the average fore-and-aft seating position of both survivors and fatalities for each crash.
We also compared survival rates in four sections of the aircraft. Both analytical approaches clearly pointed to the same conclusion: It’s safer in the back.
In 11 of the 20 crashes, rear passengers clearly fared better. Only five accidents favored those sitting forward. Three were tossups, with no particular pattern of survival. In one case, seat positions could not be determined.
In seven of the 11 crashes favoring back-seaters, their advantage was striking. For example, in both the 1982 Air Florida accident in Washington, D.C., and the 1972 crash of an Eastern 727 at New York’s Kennedy Airport, the handful of survivors were all sitting in the last few rows. And when a United DC-8 ran out of fuel near Portland, Ore., in 1978, all seven passengers who died were sitting in the first four rows.
Oddly, the five accidents that favored front-cabin passengers all occurred between 1988 and 1992. In the 1989 United DC-10 accident in Sioux City, Iowa, for example, the majority of the 175 survivors sat ahead of the wing.
There was just one crash in which passengers in the front had a pronounced survival advantage. The only two fatalities in a 1989 USAir runway accident at LaGuardia were both sitting in Row 21 in the 25-row Boeing 737-400.
Where detailed seating charts were available, we also calculated survival rates for various parts of the passenger cabin. Again, the trend was clear: The rear cabin (seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing) had the highest average survival rate at 69 percent. The overwing section had a 56 percent survival rate, as did the coach section ahead of the wing. First/business-class sections (or in all-coach planes, the front 15 percent) had an average survival rate of just 49 percent.
So when the “experts” tell you it doesn’t matter where you sit, have a chuckle and head for the back of the plane. And once your seatbelt is firmly fastened, relax: There’s been just one fatal jet crash in the U.S. in the last five-plus years.