What’s the safest seat on a plane?

Many of us will have been on a plane with our families over the summer holiday and will be now building up frequent flyer points through travel. When picking your seats you might be focused on those that give you most leg room or enable you to get on or off quickly when boarding and landing. But do you ever think about which seats maximise your survival chances in the event of a crash?

Our team of engineers and scientists have provided an interesting outlook into this subject as despite the high volume of flights every year, flying is relatively safe.

Low risk of fatality
The odds of being killed in a single flight are estimated to be one in 4.7 million [2] – you’re far more likely to be killed in a road accident or even when travelling by rail or riding a bike.

If the worst should happen…
If you do happen to be on one of the few planes that gets into trouble, you might feel more hopeful about the outcome if you have selected your seat carefully. Although there is a lot of debate about whether any seats are really safer than others, some research does suggest the following:

In 2012 a Boeing 727 loaded with cameras, sensors and crash test dummies was intentionally crashed into the desert in Mexico [4]. The researchers concluded that first class passengers and those sitting in the front of the main cabin area were more likely to sustain injuries and die in head-on crashes. Passengers sitting behind the wings or at the back of the aircraft were more likely to survive.

This could be for a couple of reasons. The force of the impact was found to be substantially greater at the front section of the plane: seats from the first seven rows were found almost 500 feet from the accident site

Based on the crash test dummies seated towards the middle of the plane, the researchers concluded that passengers not wearing seat belts were the only ones in this area likely to sustain fatal injuries. The safest seats of all were at the back of the plane, furthest from the point of impact but where passengers could easily access the exit rows.

The findings make uncomfortable reading for first class passengers. However, the outcome would not necessarily be the same if a plane were to crash after getting into a tailspin, when it might make contact with the ground on its side or at some other point other than the nose [5]. Sitting at the back could then be just as dangerous. Fuel storage beneath the wings and alongside engines is another factor to consider.

In addition, aircraft are structurally designed to be stronger around the wing section to sustain the weight of the engines. This means that having a seat close to the wings will mean the surrounding structure of the plane had been reinforced.  This makes the likelihood or rapture or a tear either in mid-air or at impact with the ground is lower than other areas on the plane.

Research by Popular Mechanics magazine looked at commercial plane crashes since 1971 where there were both survivors and fatalities and where seating information was available [4]. This found that rear cabin passengers had a 69% chance of surviving a crash, while passengers seated both over the wings and ahead of the wings had a 56% survival chance. Passengers in first class had a 49% chance of survival. Survival rates for all passengers would of course be higher if the calculations had included crashes with no fatalities.

Based on the above tests and the mechanical design and structure of airplanes, sitting at the back-behind an airplane wing, seems to be the safest theory.

Best seats of all?
Choosing an aisle seat rather than having a window view is likely to be a good bet. If you’re not hemmed in by other passengers, you are more likely to be faster to evacuate the plane. Getting out within 90 seconds is the target.

You could also opt for an exit row, or a seat close to one. By definition, you’ll be near to your escape route. Research by Time Magazine found that passengers sitting within two rows of emergency exits had a higher chance of survival in the event of a plane crash [4].

Seats with buckled belts are also highly recommended. As the Mexico crash research showed, wearing a seatbelt increases survival chances. Given the standard advice to wear a seatbelt to reduce the risk of injury during turbulence, keeping your buckle done up would seem an obvious safety-enhancing decision. Regardless of your seat position, paying attention to the safety information given by flight crew is also highly recommended, as is identifying your nearest exits. Knowing what to do and staying calm in a crisis are important qualities that can only help both yourself and your fellow passengers.

More Stephens employs a dedicated team of engineers and scientists as well as accountants so we not only truly understand the dynamic and innovative sectors we work with, but are able to highlight key risks and focused topics of interest for our clients. To subscribe please click here
1  http://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2016-02-15-01.aspx
2  http://www.planecrashinfo.com/cause.htm
3  http://www.flyingfear.net/Images/HowSafeIsFlyingChart.jpg
5  http://www.bgr.com/2016/01/22/safest-airplane-seats-crash

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