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The psychology and history of forward-facing seats has been answered well already here. I ask instead about how bad it is that seats are forward-facing.

For context, I was looking through Wikipedia's list of airline flights that required gliding, and a surprising fraction of the 30 incidents listed were fatal to some, but not all, of those aboard (47%). Averaged across the 30 incidents we get that 25.1% of those aboard died (noting that this average is pretty unscientific, and is subject to sampling and coverage biases; it's still interesting). Even among just incidents with fatalities on average less than half of those aboard died! I generated a scatter plot of the incidents:

Scatter plot of incidents

This data surprised me a lot! My layman's intuition says that emergency landings should be a lot more bimodal, with basically all landings either being gorgeous US Airways 1549 style happy endings, or blazing fireballs with no survivors, with some very rare exceptions. Based on this intuition, I always figured it was reasonable that passenger seats face forwards; I thought "rear-facing seats wouldn't help that much anyway, edge-cases where it would have made the difference will be the rare exception to the rule".

But is this really true? It seems that maybe many deaths on commercial flights are incidents in this intermediate region, although I don't have the expertise to evaluate if rear-facing seats would help with how people typically die in commercial airline accidents.

Question: As a really rough ballpark, how much safer would commercial airline flights be (averaged across all commercial flights globally) if the seats were rear-facing?

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    $\begingroup$ "the fatalities in crash landings are usually from the fire that follows, not blunt force trauma" Very interesting, this is precisely the sort of information I was looking for. Do you have any citations on causes of death in airline accidents that could let us upper-bound how much safer rear-facing seats could be? For example, if only 50% of passengers die of blunt trauma then it's pretty implausible that this would more than double safety (although, I suppose technically people could be so shaken up from a front-facing crash that they can't escape a fire, or something confounding like that). $\endgroup$ – JupyterUser Dec 17 '17 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ It will cause fatalities because people will drive instead. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Dec 18 '17 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ Turning all the seats round won't save lives. Leave the pilots facing forward. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Dec 18 '17 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummond haha - That reminds me of one of the controllers that used to work JFK Ground. Pilot, after getting clearance to push back: "Which way would you like us to face?" Ground: "Towards the front. It makes the passengers nervous if you face the back." $\endgroup$ – reirab Dec 18 '17 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ Don't underestimate the number of people who get motion sickness. Multiple people barfing on flights will quickly erode the popularity of rear-facing seats. $\endgroup$ – JS. Dec 18 '17 at 18:26
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The evidence is not the most recent one, but

According to an article in the December 1952 edition of Naval Aviation News, “Passengers in Navy transport planes have ten-fold better chances of coming out of crashes alive, thanks to backward-facing seats which are being installed in all new planes […]". The unsigned article cites two Royal Air Force accidents involving a four-engine Hastings and a two-engine Valetta. Both had rear-facing seats that were credited with minimizing injuries to passengers.

Unfortunately, the link to the 1952 edition ends in a 404. Thanks to the detective work by Gerald Schneider we now have a working link. The article is on page 27. Another source cites a 1957 study, without a traceable source:

An Air Force study in 1957 reviewed a series of crashes and concluded that injuries were seven times greater among passengers facing forward.

That a backward-facing seat is safer is indisputable, but quantitative data is very hard to find. Given the much higher wing loadings and landing speeds of modern airliners, possibly those ratios cannot be translated to modern aviation. While in the days of propeller-driven transports the difference between the forward- and backward-facing position might indeed have meant that the latter provided a significant advantage in survivability, the deceleration level in a modern airliner crash might make both equally unsurvivable. In addition, the data from mostly young, fit and healthy subjects involved in crashes of military transports might not translate easily to todays untrained, middle-aged and overweight passengers.

Circumstantial evidence cited in this 2016 study, however, indicates that even for modern airliners seating position is important. For an A340 runway overrun accident in Toronto in August 2005 it cites the Canadian TSB as saying:

‘One of the cabin crew, seated in the same general area as the crew and passengers who incurred serious impact injuries, was not injured. This cabin crew’s seat was aft-facing; the other seats were forward-facing.’

Another more recent paper gives more modest advantages: This 1996 study by the European Transport Safety Council lists them in a table and awards rearward-facing seats with only a 5% advantage overall or 19% if based only on impact fatalities:

Expected percentage reduction in avoidable impact fatalities

Commenting on the table, the numbers are based on the 1995 Cherry study (CHERRY, R.G.W. and Associates Ltd (1995) Analysis of factors influencing the survivability of passengers in aircraft accidents Vol. I-III. EU DG VII contract) and

These particular figures are not quoted in the study, but have been calculated from the data provided in the study report.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very informative, thanks! I'm trying to read the report to figure out what the other 3/4ths of the "overall fatalities" are such that "impact fatalities" are only approximately 1/4th of them. It looks like a bunch of it is fire-related, but what I'm seeing doesn't quite add up... can you decipher it? $\endgroup$ – JupyterUser Dec 17 '17 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @JupyterUser: I've added another report (from 2016 this time) with plenty of references, most of which with an active link. However, for seating position it seems to copy over the conclusion from the 1996 study. The 1996 study says that "Just over 50 per cent of all fatalities in survivable or technically survivable accidents are due to impact", so it creates a somewhat arbitrary distinction between survivable and non-survivable / non-avoidable accidents. The 5% apply to all accidents while the 19% apply to all avoidable fatalities. Makes quite a difference in the statistical base! $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Dec 17 '17 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ The .pdf of the 1952 edition of Naval Aviation News is available on archive.org. $\endgroup$ – Gerald Schneider Dec 19 '17 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting that floor strength is an even bigger factor according to this. I guess that this is because the seats don't shear off and go flying around? $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk Dec 19 '17 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ Even if it's only a difference between a passenger getting a broken leg or not I guess it's a lot easier to evacuate a plane (and get away from fire and smoke) when the passengers are not impaired by wounds $\endgroup$ – jean Mar 12 '18 at 14:23
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I myself for some time thought about the idea of rear facing seats. A problem I see is that in an airplane crash oftentimes the contents of the overhead compartment and fragments of the overhead installation (lid of the oxygen masks, plastic around the reading lights,...) are sent flying through the cabin.

Usually, this debris would hit the seats, or the passengers backs while in the brace position. In rear facing seats, you probably would not go into brace position as to exploit the cushion effect of the backrest. This leads all flying debris to be targeted at your face and upper torso. And this made me question the benefits of rear facing seats.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1q2nag
In the video at ~1:13:00, it can be seen that during a crash, overhead installations do not necessarily stay where they belong. At ~1:17:30 we hear that flying debris and upright position do not really mix. (In this case the debris is moving rearward[?])

Also the table in Peter Kämpf's answer supports the claim that breaking/opening overhead stowage is indeed a source of danger.

In the 1950s studies Peter Kämpf cited, the beneficial effects of rear-facing are about military aircraft - and I am not sure that they have overhead stowage.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes flying overhead debris is a danger. Personally, I'd rather face that danger with an intact body, than be protected from it by the back rest with a broken hip from the deceleration. We're supposed to lean forward in those tiny economy seats anyway. By the way, you should be able to comment now. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Dec 18 '17 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ The danger of flying debris can be somewhat overcome by introducing an alternate brace position where passengers cover their faces with forearms, if they are rear facing, don't you think? $\endgroup$ – sampathsris Dec 18 '17 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ In a crash, the debris is moving forward relative to the cabin, not aft. Or, more precisely, the cabin is slowing down its forward motion more quickly than the contents of the cabin. So, yeah, flying stuff will hit you in the face if you're facing aft. $\endgroup$ – reirab Dec 18 '17 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ This would most likely be taken into consideration when designing the airframe if the seats are facing backwards :) $\endgroup$ – RAZERZ Dec 18 '17 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ The study recommends to apply the same construction standards for overhead bins as appliccable for seats, that way they won't break and they won't open. So save people from impact with carry-on (13% reduction in avoidable fatalities), plus either rearward facing seats or 3-point belts (19/18% reduction). Total 32 % from those two mods). $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Dec 18 '17 at 23:56
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Sorry, too long for a comment, but wanted to add it anyway.

The main problem is that the safety of a rear-facing seat is not really proven. There is cabin debris, and the fact that slowing down by impact these days is much "harder" than in a prop plane.

The disadvantages however are well known.

  • People don't like to accelerate backwards. It makes them sick.
  • People would interpret the backwards seats as "wrong"
  • People would feel that the airplane is going to crash, just because plans are being made for the "what if". For example, I could totally see someone saying "See there going to crash, if they thought it was safe they wouldn't point the seats that way".
  • People are often ignorant and trying to teach them that a safer way would usually result in a loss in sales.
  • Any perceived changes to the seats would make the airline look cheap. "They only put them backwards so they could cram more people in."

Now those downsides are only observations of my own, but it's easy to see how backward-facing seats have a real downside, while their upside is not as strong.

Keep in mind that safety for an airline is a function of making money, not a primary concern. If people die in a crash you don't have to pay as much.

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    $\begingroup$ "They only put them backwards so they could cram more people in." - it would be quite revolutionary if that actually worked. $\endgroup$ – pipe Dec 18 '17 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @pipe After reversing the seats to cram more people in, you could reverse them again iteratively. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Dec 18 '17 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ "If people die in a crash you don't have to pay as much." Crashes typically cause damage to the airframe, or are caused by damage to the airframe; in the latter case, the damage existing during the flight is typically made worse by the deceleration at the end of the flight. Damage to the airframe, regardless of the exact reason why it is sustained and at what point during the flight it is sustained, is typically expensive to repair. Ergo, all else equal, compared to a normal landing, crashing would seem to be bad for the airline's profit margin. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 18 '17 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ The question is about lives saved. The safety of rearward facing seats is proven. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Dec 18 '17 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by this? If people die in a crash you don't have to pay as much I am puzzled by this assertion. $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 19 '17 at 18:09
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There'e never one type of impact. Aircraft on impact can spin, jolt, stop, flip, and list in all sorts of directions. There really isn't a safer or not safe option. I'd like to think most aircraft that sadly impact of so forwards, and into something, but I don't have data for that. I personally choose rear facing as I feel safer (I've seen videos of the safety dummy tests for the seats i travel in and rear facing have less impact on the body in a forward face on impact at high G). I find the forward brace position uncomfortable and worry about strain on my lower torso. Rear facing I feel supported by the seat back.

The other thing to consider now is those sideways an diagonal seats. They wouldn't be allowed if deemed unsafe so I guess I'd just advise to take whichever seat you are most comfy in, as you're more likely to land that crash!

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