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If I'm going on holiday with my family on an airliner such as one of the ones listed on this page, then where is the safest place to sit?

The answers to this question seem to imply that the seats at the rear of the plane would be safer:
Why are flight recorders generally located in the tail?
but of course I can think of quite a few things which might make it different for passengers versus the flight recorder.

I realise that flying is statistically a lot safer than driving, so I don't need to be told not to worry about safety - I'm not worrying, I'm just interested in the difference in safety between different seats in the airliner. Because if I get a choice of seats then (ceteris paribus) I can't see any reason not to choose the safer ones.

I'm guessing it might be affected by things like proximity to the exits, and so might be different in different models of airliner. If that's the case then can you tell me what factors affect the safety of each seat? E.g. is it more important to be close to an exit or to be further back in the plane? What should I look for?

Is it different on long-haul versus short-haul? Or are there other differences in the type of flight (and therefore the more typical type of accident) which change the 'safest place to sit'?


A few articles I've found on the topic:
- Popular Mechanics, 2007 (statistical review: back is safest)
- Discovery / Channel 4, 2013 (one-off crash experiment: back is safest)
- BBC, 2014 (expert opinion: no safest place)
- CAA, 2006 (statistical review of evacuations: exit rows and adjoining rows are safest)

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    $\begingroup$ Ceteris paribus, there is a reason to choose the (very slightly) more dangerous ones, since you get to leave the plane earlier. On a large plane (eg the A380), getting to the checkpoint earlier could save you up to half an hour in immigration. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Jan 13 '15 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ @MarchHo, those seats being the ones at the front? $\endgroup$ – A E Jan 13 '15 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Rather than focusing on an exit, knowing in advance where are all the exits can help. You don't know in advance whether the overwing exit you are sitting next to will be usable in an event (e.g. if there's an engine fire, that overwing exit wouldn't be used). $\endgroup$ – orique Jan 13 '15 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ inb4 "inside the flight recorder". $\endgroup$ – A E Jan 14 '15 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ What is the value of such analysis? I mean if I count the number of fatalities and injuries in a frontal collision in a car, what I'll obtain is the largest number is for the front left seat, with an exception for the right front one in some countries (India, UK). Does that prove this seat is the most dangerous? Not at all! It happens this seat is the most used, because this is the driver seat, and most cars carry no passengers. So what about the result of the airplane studies? How do they manage such obstacles? How do we identify the ones which don't manage them? $\endgroup$ – mins Jun 30 '15 at 19:27
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There is no general safe or unsafe seat rule - it really depends on the circumstances of any mishap. If the plane runs into a mountain, the rear seats give you more crush zone, so the deceleration is lower and stretched out over time to sustainable levels. However, if the plane comes in too low during landing and strikes ground first with the tail, those rear seats will see the highest acceleration.

You might as well look into the historical records of the particular type of aircraft - see this question for some numbers. However, to use this as the basis of a risk assessment would be an abuse of statistics.

Another factor might be the airline: How well do they maintain the aircraft, and how well are the pilots prepared to handle an emergency? There are multiple studies which look into the different cultures around the world and how much they contribute to the accident rate. Some report a tripling of accidents between the unsafest and the safest cultures.

I expect that by choosing a safe airline you will have the highest influence on the safety of the trip, but unfortunately the desire of passengers to pick the cheapest flights no matter what has led operators to cut corners wherever they can.

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    $\begingroup$ 'Choosing a safe airline' is pretty difficult, as a passenger it's hard to make that comparison. Are safety ratings like these reasonably well-correlated with the likelihood of an accident? Or with the possibility of surviving if there is an accident? Or should I be looking at something different? $\endgroup$ – A E Jan 13 '15 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AE: This would probably deserve asking as a separate question. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jan 13 '15 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @AE: Generally, aircraft accidents are so uncommon that one single incident will jumble all those rankings. However, the linked list looks reasonable. In the end, much will depend on factors beyond your control. Compare AF447 and UN232 - the pilots made all the difference, but you cannot choose the individual pilot. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jan 13 '15 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf, yeah, I've already read all the car test reports and bought a Volvo, this is my one day a year for thinking about air travel. ;) $\endgroup$ – A E Jan 13 '15 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf Intellectual curiosity surely is an adequate reason to ask questions here. I've wondered about this before myself, but that doesn't mean that I'm worried about crashing. $\endgroup$ – Voo Jan 13 '15 at 19:22
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Before I start, remember that we're talking about statistics of location in the aircraft, within statistics of survival of an accident (95%), which is itself dependent on a statistic of particular type of accident (approx 85% have no fatalities at all), within something which is already a very unlikely event (an aviation accident).

So let us for a moment assume that you're in a semi-survivable accident, ie where there are a mixture of fatalities and survivors - this is already a very unlikely scenario... in the vast majority of accidents either everybody dies (rare), or nobody does (most common).

To give you the straight out answer to your question, in such an accident, the rear of the plane - more passengers have survived plane crashes in those seats than any other. This is due to most accidents being nose-first, so if it's going to be partially survivable your ideal location is near the back.

Also statistically, being near to a door but not next to a window gives the "optimum" chance of survival - more people survive in such locations. This is due to ease of evacuation, but without being whacked in the head by a crumpling fuselage.

So if you're going on purely "increasing your chances", a non-window seat near the rear door is the best possible place to be in an accident, other than on the ground having missed your plane.

The thing to remember, though, is that (referring to modern aviation)

  • Accident rates work out as roughly 1-per-1 million flights
  • Around 85-87% of aviation accidents involve no fatalities (so fatal accidents are around 15-per-100 million flights)
  • Even if you're in a crash where someone dies, Aviation accidents with fatalities have a fatality rate of somewhere between 5% and 25% (which is to say, 75-95% of everyone who is in a fatal accident, survives).

So that gives you a 1/4th to 1/20th of a chance of a 3/20th of a chance of a 1 in a million chance of becoming a statistic in my next post on this subject. So that would take you somewhere between 20 and 100 million flights before you die.

You have a 1-in-100-million chance of being in a fatal accident, and even then you a 75-95% chance of surviving it anyway.

So in short, if it's going to get you it will, if it's not it won't. By the time you've survived enough accidents for it to be anything more then sheer atrocious luck that you die at all, you'd already have developed a healthy fear of flying and have gathered enough air miles to take a taxi....

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    $\begingroup$ on the ground having missed your plane. Yup, that's the safest spot of all! Well done!! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jan 13 '15 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ What can I say, I don't like to tempt statistics, even if we're talking 1-in-100million $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 13 '15 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ "By the time you've survived enough accidents for it to be anything more then sheer atrocious luck that you die at all, you'd already have developed a healthy fear of flying and have gathered enough air miles to take a taxi...." -- +1 :) $\endgroup$ – Brian S Jan 13 '15 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianS and you've also lived several pilot's worth of lives. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jan 13 '15 at 20:57
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Just based on your articles I guess it is fairly straightforward to pick a seat with high survivability:

Behind the wings, close to an emergency exit

However, keep in mind that if your family has small children, or if you worry a lot about things like what the safest seat in a plane is, you may want to avoid sitting next to emergency exits. They are used best if the person next to them keeps their head cool and opens it in times of crisis.

As such the best seat for you may be the row next to the emergency exit.


You may want to sit next to the aisle, but then again you probably gain more by letting each child be accompanied by an adult, so this is only relevant if there are more than 2 seats next to each window.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, nearest to the wings is also least disturbing to the middle-ear, and young one's may be subject to air-sickness if you sit far from the wings. $\endgroup$ – Arluin Jan 13 '15 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Arluin How is sitting close to the wing "least disturbing to the middle-ear"? Ear problems come from altitude-related pressure changes, which are the same throughout the plane. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 9 '15 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ Pitching of the plane (nose up/down) rotates around the wings. At the wings there's very little movement compared to the extremities (front/rear). Seats at the front and rear move much farther up and down during pitch than those at the wings. Also yaw (turning left and right) pivots the plane at the middle. So again the seats in the middle of the plane don't move far during yaw, but those at the nose and tail move the farthest. $\endgroup$ – Arluin May 10 '15 at 0:34
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This Info-graphic will answer all your questions enter image description here

So basically sit at the back of a Boeing 777 during April or May and avoid Aeroflot.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE. Please be aware the image-only answer are generally not well received. Please consider including the relevant information in your post and eventually provide the image (with source!) as a reference. $\endgroup$ – Federico Jun 30 '15 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ This infographic is also very poorly controlled for variables, with the "dangerous airlines" section being the worst offender. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Jul 2 '15 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ It really is a bad infographic. Of course the months with the most flights would have the most fatal accidents. That doesn't mean that you will be more safe by waiting until a month with fewer average accidents. $\endgroup$ – forest Jan 10 at 9:25
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As the wonderful Aviation After-Dinner speaker David Gunson used to say, "You should always sit at the back as no aircraft had yet been known to reverse into a mountain." This was, of course, before the Osprey made it a possibility.

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In April 2012, a group of scientists remotely piloted an airplane and performed a staged crash in Mexico. The aircraft they used was an unmanned Boeing 727-200, fitted with numerous cameras, sensors, and crash test dummies. They simulated the most likely type of aircraft crash landing, a controlled but too fast decent where the plane flew straight into the ground.

Each seat and it's 'passengers' had sensors on them that demonstrated the amount of stress on that point of the plane during impact. The program seemed to conclude that in that type of crash, again the most common type to occur, the front and back 25% of the aircraft was the most severely affected and where the majority of the fatalities / serious injuries would occur. The middle of the plane, particularly those just over the wing faired the best. There is of course no way to predict what could happen, every plane and situation completely different.

The whole thing was filmed for television, an interesting watch although if you are a nervous flyer probably to be avoided! I believe it was called 'Curiosity: Plane Crash'

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  • $\begingroup$ That's this TV show which I linked to in the question. The dummies at the front of the aircraft fared worst, those at the back of the aircraft came off best. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – A E Jan 13 '15 at 15:55
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Studies vary, but they generally tend to converge on 3 items:

  • Aisle seats are safer* than window seats.
  • Seats at the rear are safer* than seats in the front.
  • Seats near emergency exits are safer* than those farther away.

Deducing from this and combining all 3 elements, an aisle seat at the back near an emergency exit seems to be the statistically safest* choice.

*(statistically higher survival rate)

Caveat: Single crashes are hardly meaningful, as most factors are idiosyncratic (type of impact, passenger distribution, particularly with regard to health and age, etc.) but they should even out across a large enough sample size.


Studies reaching the aforementioned conclusions:

Based on an analysis of the seating charts from more than 100 plane crashes, Professor Galea found that people seated within 5 rows of a serviceable exit were most likely to escape. Beyond 5 rows and your chances of survival are much lower. To stand the best chance of survival, book an exit row seat, or 1 row away. Many passengers survive the initial impact but don’t get off the plane quickly enough – and it’s the first 90 seconds after a crash that are considered the most important by safety experts.

Passengers in aisle seats were also more likely to survive than those in window seats .
(source 1) (source 2)

The rear cabin (seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing) had the highest average survival rate at 69%. The overwing section had a 56% survival rate, as did the coach section ahead of the wing. First/business-class sections (or in all-coach planes, the front 15%) had an average survival rate of just 49%.

diagram

Survival rates for various parts of the passenger cabin, based on an analysis of all commercial jet crashes in the United States since 1971 where detailed seating charts were available. (source)

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Though an analysis of a single crash is hardly decisive, its findings did support a study by Popular Mechanics, carried out in 2007. The magazine analysed all crashes since 1971 and found that those in rear seats (behind the wing’s trailing edge) were safest – survival rates were 69 per cent as opposed to 56 per cent over the wing and 49 per cent for those at the front of the plane.

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