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.
: This article series contains things
which are subjective opinions rather than provable
repeatable facts, and deals with probabilities
rather than certainties.
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,
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 :
How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the
safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a
The safest seats
Exiting the plane
Bracing and other considerations
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30 Jan 2009, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.