If you’re a nervous flier, you may find yourself wondering if there is, in fact, a safest seat on the airplane. Is a window seat statistically more secure than an aisle seat? Does being seated in or near an exit row help? And what about the front versus the back of the plane?
One of the most thorough and frequently cited studies on the topic is still the 2015 investigation by Time, which analyzed 35 years of data collected from the FAA’s Aircraft Accident Database. The reporters looked at incidents that had survivors and fatalities, and for which seating-chart information was available—that left them with a subset of 17 flights between 1985 and 2000.
Using that data, Time reported that seats in the back were slightly safer, with a 32 percent fatality rate, as opposed to 39 percent in the middle of the plane and 38 up front. Taking into account the position within a row, the study found that the best chance of survival came with rear middle seats (28 percent fatality), while the worst was aisle seats in the middle section (44 percent).
Despite these statistics, the Time study did acknowledge that there’s a bit of randomness involved: “Of course, the chances of dying in an aircraft accident have less to do with where you sit and more to do with the circumstances surrounding the crash. If the tail of the aircraft takes the brunt of the impact, the middle or front passengers may fare better than those in the rear. We found that survival was random in several accidents—those who perished were scattered irregularly between survivors. It’s for this reason that the FAA and other airline safety experts say there is no safest seat on the plane.”
Air-safety specialist and journalist Christine Negroni has written two books on aviation disasters, Deadly Departure (William Morrow, 2000) and The Crash Detectives (Penguin, 2016), and she’s not convinced that existing studies about seat position have much merit.
“The few studies that have been done are flawed for several reasons,” Negroni says. “They focus only on fatal crashes, which is just 5 percent of airline accidents. Since those studies fail to represent the whole, I do not find them meaningful.”
Negroni believes that attributing the outcome to seat location ignores the many complicated factors that can help or hurt survivability: the location of the initial impact, whether or not safety measures malfunctioned (seat belts, oxygen masks, aisle lighting, etc.), the ability of flight crew to assist, danger outside of the aircraft, and more.
“These factors and many others create a multidimensional picture of survivability that is just not present in an equation that takes each fatal plane crash and notes the seat assignment of the dead passengers,” Negroni explains. “And, by the way, this does not even tell us whether the passenger died in that seat or somewhere else on evacuation.”
Negroni believes that many of these studies ignore just how survivable most airplane incidents can be. She personally has lived through two emergency landings—“the kind with foam on the runway and ambulances standing by.” And the experiences, she says, “make me see the fallacy in what so many people take as truth: People don’t survive airplane crashes. Oh yeah, they do.”
She continues, “Since the vast majority of air accidents are survivable, this means that the actions that passengers take before, during, and after the event are far more likely to have actual impact on their safety than where on the plane they are located.” (It’s a vivid reminder that every seemingly minor detail during a flight has a purpose in keeping passengers safe: why seats have to be upright during takeoff and landing, why window shades are often opened, why cabin lights may be dimmed.)
As an example, she points to the 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, when a Boeing 777 that had originated in South Korea clipped the end of the seawall as it landed short of the runway in San Francisco. “The aft end of the plane was jettisoned and the front spun around, pivoting up and slamming back down to the ground,” Negroni says. Amazingly, only two of the 307 passengers and crew members died, with a third succumbing to her injuries in the hospital the following week. “This was the kind of high-energy accident that should have been disastrous. And yet what led to the two deaths was the fact that neither traveler had their seat belt fastened as the plane landed.”
In the National Transportation Safety Board’s aircraft accident report, the two people who lost their lives in the crash are identified by their seat assignments, 41B and 41E (41B was sitting in seat 41D at the time of the crash). If a study only correlated seat assignment with the likelihood of survival, it might conclude that their position in the second-to-last row of the Boeing 777 had a greater impact on their deaths than the fact that they weren’t wearing their seat belts.
In other words, before you start letting these studies influence where you sit, remember that your seat location is only one small (and relatively random) factor in the equation that decides your safety in the case of an emergency. Instead, it’s infinitely more important to follow directions and listen to the crew every step of the way.