According to this image, taken from The Science of Survivability (Page 79) from NOAA, the statistically safest seats to sit in are at the rear of the plane (69% survival rate vs 49% at the front). Aircraft seat survivability

From a business perspective (and ignoring any ethical considerations of whether passengers should pay more for a better chance of survival), it would seem to me to make more sense to put your highest paying and likely most regular passengers in the safest part of the plane, the rear. Yet almost exclusively they are placed in the front, the un-safest part.

So why are First/Business class seats in the un-safer front of the craft and not the safer rear?

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    $\begingroup$ FO/FO, simple as that $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 6 '15 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ @dkwarr87 The image you have referenced displays the intensity of the shock wave when initiated in the event of head-on collision. Not all crashes are like that. Chances of survival depend more if your time has come. $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Feb 6 '15 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Your chances of being killed at all are so insignificant that the difference between 49% and 69% is statistically irrelevant. If an individual wanted to make it relevant, then the only statistically rational choice is not to get on the plane at all since you then reduce your chance of being killed in a plane crash to zero. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Feb 6 '15 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon "in a plane crash", yes. "BY a plane crash", no, alas. I won't mention specifics, but a number of commercial accidents have resulted in deaths of people on the ground - even in some cases from aircraft at cruise altitude. $\endgroup$ Feb 6 '15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Imagine the conversation. Vip: "why is my business seat on the rear of the plane?", hostess: "because in the event of a plane crash you have an higher chance of surviving..." $\endgroup$ Feb 7 '15 at 11:36

There are several reasons:

  • First In, First Out
    They are given precedence to board the airplane before others, and precedence to disembark the airplane before others too.

  • Quieter Environment
    On commercial airplanes, engines are on the wings which are in the aft of first class. Hence first class is quieter, which is a better experience.

  • Low Turbulence
    Turbulence at the front of the plane is lower than the back. Aircraft are extremely flexible and will bounce around more in the back than the because the bump hits the front and causes the back to vibrate.

  • Seating Arrangement
    Important and prominent passengers feel that they should be in the front or on the upper deck (747 or A380), when available. They also feel that they do not need to see other parts of the airplane which are not of their concern.

  • Marketing Strategy
    When economy class people walk through first and/or business class, they will notice the perks and benefits of traveling in these higher classes. They may upgrade their seats on future travels for a higher price.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent points. And all of these are much more important than the extremely small chance that the plane will crash and first class doesn't fare well. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Feb 6 '15 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure about your turbulence point. I would expect the majority of the force of turbulence to catch the wings and tail (which are designed to catch the air) and therefore front of the plane get shaken more these remote forces. $\endgroup$
    – Oli
    Feb 6 '15 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ I see how leaving first is good, but why is entering first desirable at all? $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Feb 6 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ Entering first becomes desirable if the seat on the plane is significantly more comfortable than the seats in the waiting area. $\endgroup$ Feb 6 '15 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Walter Not just foreign airlines; that's reasonably common whenever there's a door there, because it's more efficient (I've done it on a United 757). $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    Feb 7 '15 at 5:31

Farhan did an excellent job explaining the answer from a creature comfort perspective, but let me explain why from the standpoint of safety and public perception of said safety.

Firstly, the difference between the front and the back isn't as stark as the red and green colors might imply. As your graph shows, the survival rate in the front is 49%, and the rear is 69%, and while a 20% gap is significant, it's not like everyone in the front always dies and everyone in the rear always survives.

Secondly, planes simply do not crash all that much, and most frequent fliers just aren't worried about dying in a plane crash, so they'd rather the convenience of the front of the airplane.

Thirdly, of those who are worried about dying in a crash, most of them are unaware of the fact they are 20% more likely to do so at the front of the craft. Most people assume that if the plane crashes, they are just going to die. Thus, they assume moving to another part of the airplane isn't going to help. Thus, there isn't really any market demand to move 1st class seats to another location.

As a final thought, I think even knowing the stats, personally, I'd still rather be up front. I've read of accidents where there were several people near the rear who survived the initial impact and then either died from exposure or died from a spreading fire because they were too injured or weak to move. Morbid as it is, sometimes I think I'd rather just "get it over with"...

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    $\begingroup$ Also note that the chance of death only applies if some, but not all, of the passengers die during the crash. Since many flights that crash crash with total fatalities, the difference is even lower than one would think. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Feb 6 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @MarchHo absolutely; these numbers don't show the interesting bit, which is "chance of dying per flight at the front vs at the back", which are both absolutely tiny. $\endgroup$
    – Roman
    Feb 7 '15 at 20:16

Looking at the diagram of fatalities, it's immediately obvious that the majority of people are in the safest spot. The most spaced out people are in the deadliest spot. This seems rational to me.

From a business perspective (and ignoring any ethical considerations of whether passengers should pay more for a better chance of survival), it would seem to me to make more sense to put your highest paying and likely most regular passengers in the safest part of the plane, the rear.

From a business perspective, it makes sense to keep your number of reported casualties as low as possible. Also from an ethical perspective, too, obviously.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Feb 8 '15 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure this is not the actual reason, but I like the way you think. $\endgroup$ May 29 '15 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah. Likely just a psychological thing, where people feel like they are being treated as more important if they are in front. $\endgroup$ Jun 2 '15 at 0:09
  • $\begingroup$ FIFO (as Farhan mentioned) is the main reason. Most of the people up front tend to be business travelers who have to fly very frequently and want to get off the plane and out of the airport as quickly as possible. Additionally, getting off first makes them less likely to miss close connections. Getting on first means that they are ensured that overhead space will still be available and also allows them to relax and get something to drink while everyone else stands in a line waiting to board. The people up front tend to be more frequent fliers than particularly wealthy fliers, due to upgrades. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jun 4 '15 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ FIFO would be the definitive truth if everyone entered the plane through the tail, and exited through the nose. Obviously, they don't. First class is ahead of the exit in most planes I've been on. If it were behind the exit, and everyone else ahead, nothing would change in terms of FIFO: first class would still be let out first, then everyone else. In some planes, first class is even entered through an entirely separate door. So, FIFO seems clearly not the main reason. Psychology seems the main part, continuing a tradition that goes all the way back to the captain's cabin in sailing ships. $\endgroup$ Jun 5 '15 at 0:02

Because, like in so much else, we trade off safety for convenience.

Why fly at all, if you want to be inconvenienced, but safer? Okay you couldn't get where you're going, but it's (almost) impossible to be involved a plane crash if you aren't on a plane.

The real answer is that statistically, very few people are ever involved in a plane crash. Of those, statistically very few die.

As stated in my answer here, if you got on a random plane right now, and then at every airport immediately disembarked and got onto another about to leave, it would take you something between 20 and 100 million flights before you died.

So you have a 0.00000001 to 0.00000005 chance of ever dying in a plane crash. That's so close to negligible that it isn't a factor. And if you survive a plane crash, are you really likely to be grateful to your airline for putting you in the nice "ever so slightly safer" seats in the back?

The statistics of the "safer" seats is based purely on accidents which have a proportion of fatalities: it excludes accidents where everyone or nobody dies, and ignores injuries.

In short, you're looking at a statistically insignificant statistic about which seat is "safest" on a plane that will almost certainly not crash anyway, and even if it did, everyone would be probably be fine (85% of accidents have no fatalities).

Compare that negligible difference in safety, with the 4.5 million passengers per day, of which approximately half a million (10%) or so are likely business class.... and you're looking at massively inconveniencing 182 million of your best paying, most impatient passengers every year, in exchange for making them ever-so-slightly less likely to die in an accident they probably wouldn't be involved in in the first place.

If I'm in a plane crash, I'm probably either dead or not... my concern is not whether I'm going to use my frequent flyer miles, nor where I'm sat.

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    $\begingroup$ If I'm in a plane crash, I'm probably either dead or not Probably? You are definitely either dead, or not dead. Sometimes life is very simple. $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Feb 6 '15 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ That was the joke ;-) although if you ask Schrodinger (or, for that matter, his cat), I'm both for a while until somebody checks. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Feb 6 '15 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @JonStory In this context I thin all observers carry their own cat. $\endgroup$ Feb 6 '15 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellMcMahon - that probably depends on the airline :) $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Feb 6 '15 at 15:27

As a high paying passenger what would you prefer, that you need to walk all the way from the front of the aircraft to your seat through a narrow walk way or be able to be seated immediately and not look at the lower class?

Rear entry is not used because the wing it in the way of the jetty.

Putting them in front also allows you to call them later so they don't have to wait in their seats as long before departure and lets them wander the gate and spend more in the shops.

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    $\begingroup$ call them later for a date? Seriously, though, don't most airlines board first class as "priority boarding", which means they're on the plane first? That part makes no sense. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Feb 6 '15 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan Business class seats are more comfortable than airport benches, and it gives business class passengers 1st claim to economy overhead bins if the business class ones get full... $\endgroup$
    – Akash
    Feb 7 '15 at 12:21

In both jets and propeller planes, the section of the plane in front of the engines is generally the quietest. The ride tends to be smoother as you get further away (in either direction) from the wing, too. The common answer that the seats are up there to speed loading and unloading might have been true back in the day, although most airliners still board through a forward door (either the first or second door on the left is most common).

I suspect the real answer has to do with legacy airliners, though: back in the day, first-class seating was in the front, and now it's there because that's where it's always been.

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    $\begingroup$ "The ride tends to be smoother as you get further away (in either direction) from the wing, too": Is there evidence to support that? I had always heard that the ride is smoother close to the wing, and anecdotally my experience has been that the back of the plane (which is far from the wing) has the roughest ride. $\endgroup$ Feb 8 '15 at 19:01

More (likely) ways to Die

I'm going to add another twist: There are more ways to die in a plane than in a plane crash, which your question implies. Business class is spacious, comfortable and relaxing. Economy class is loud, tight and uncomfortable.

  • If your movement is restricted, you could get Deep Vain Thrombosis. More a risk in economy than spacious business class where you have the space and comfort to move.
  • You are sitting closer to a load of other passengers who could in theory give you some flu or something in economy than business.
  • You are treated like livestock in economy and correspondingly more stressfully. It wouldn't surprise me if you're more likely to get a heart attack for that reason than you ever are to die in a plane crash.

In my humble opinion: If you're sufficiently concern to be reading this, book a seat in business: relax in the lounge before the flight, sit with fewer passengers, have the flight attendants close at hand if you have questions or concerns and enjoy some good food.

Dataset Limiations

Your data is limited in that it does not go into the change of risk depending on the conditions in which you are flying. If you're flying over water, there is the ever-so-marginal risk the plane might ditch. You are then better off in the front, since it normally doesn't strike the water and floats nose-up. There are unpleasant stories from US1549 (Hudson Crash) about the rear of the plane, whereas the evacuation at front was relatively clam. Depending on the specific destination, you might be better off in another section of the plane. This is the reason why there is no clear trend and just about every authority including Boeing and the FAA says that every seat is as good as any other seat.

Furthermore, your data is based upon accidents dating all the way back from 1971. This is not really a representation of the current risk since the causes of accidents have changed. For instance, Ground Proximity Warning Systems (to stop you flying into mountains) was made mandatory for Part 121 and Part 135 operators only in 1978. Incidentally, the types of accidents this applies to involves going into terrain nose-first.

Bottom line is that probability is so incredibly remote it is virtually impossible to put halfway reliable number to stuff like this. Unlike vehicle traffic, the fatality rate jumps substantially depending on how many accidents just happen to occur that year.

  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the first part of this answer, it doesn't really answer the question. All of those points about the reduced risk in business or first class would still be true if it were at the back of the plane, as they have to do with seating arrangement, not location within the plane. Regarding the second part of the answer, crashing short of a runway on land would normally be more deadly in the back, too, since planes flare nose-up to land. For example, all of the deaths and the vast majority of injuries in the Asiana SFO crash were in the back. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jun 4 '15 at 15:14

All these answers seem to disregard the obvious cultural aspect: being up front is seen as more prestigious, and was so long before airplanes came along. First class cars in trains tend to be in front, the more expensive seats at a play or sports event are up front, at formal dinners the higher-status guests are seated closer to the head of the table, in the days of segregation black people had to ride in the back of the bus...


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