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26 October 2009

Where Is the Safest Place to Sit on an Airplane? - Takes a Stand

A common question for this site, one that is answered briefly on's Top Ten Airline Safety Questions page, is about the safest place to sit on a plane. Last July, Business Traveller Asia-Pacific asked Dr. Todd Curtis of about these issues, and what follows are their questions and's response.

Business Traveller Magazine
In the wake of the Air France and Yemenia crashes, we feel it is appropriate to bring up once again the question about how one can survive a plane crash. Having done some preliminary research into the subject, I have uncovered some tips but would still like some expert opinions on the matter.


1. Some sources say that sitting at the back of the plane is better while others say sitting along the aisle and close to an exit is a smarter choice. Does where you sit in a plane really make a difference to your chances of survival in a crash?

2. If your answer to question 1 is yes, which then is the best place to sit?

3. What are the other factors in play that contribute to one’s chance of survival?

4. What can plane passengers do to increase their chances of survival should a crash occur?

Dr. Curtis Responds
As you can imagine, I've fielded quite a few questions about safety over the past month. In my opinion, the circumstances around airliner crashes in the first half of 2009 have resulted in far more media coverage than I normally see. The Yemenia crash had several things going for it. There were many recent media reports about the Air France 447 crash leading up to the end of June because of the missing black boxes and the fact that their locator beacons were scheduled to run out of power at the same time. Add to that the fact that it was an Airbus and that there was a sole survivor meant that there was much more attention paid to this event than to the average crash involving a developing country's airline.

As for your questions, where to sit on the plane to heighten survival chances depends very much on the circumstances of the crash. In my opinion, it does not really matter where you sit in most fatal crashes because the level of fatalities often are either very low, with less than 10% casualties, or very high with over 90% fatalities. In the first case, the aircraft is usually relatively intact and the aircraft is either relatively undamaged or the damage does not keep passengers from exiting the aircraft. In the latter case, the aircraft is usually severely damaged or destroyed, with no survivors or a few survivors.

What makes an analysis of where to sit particularly difficult is that in most cases where there are a substantial number of fatalities and survivors, there is either no major investigation of the crash, or the investigating authorities do not make an effort to map out where people were sitting at the time of the crash. In some of the few cases where I have seen a seat map, the report often mentions that the map represents where passengers were scheduled to sit, not where they were actually sitting at the time of the crash.

To answer your last question, it isn't a question of where you sit, but rather a question of how you behave when you are a passenger. For example, a passenger who is aware of where the nearest exits are, who has reviewed the emergency information for the model aircraft they are on (typically provided on a card in the seat pocket), and who listens to the crew safety briefing has given himself or herself the opportunity to respond quickly and effectively if there is an emergency. Also, it helps to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum, since it may affect your ability to respond to an emergency situation.

Airline emergencies are extremely rare. If one occurs while you are a passenger, your best defense is ability to act quickly and appropriately in order to escape danger and survive.

One More Thought - New Rules Will Make All Seats Safer

Several years ago, the FAA changed the rules for airline seats to make them more sturdy in the event of an accident. Starting in 2009, seats must be able to withstand crash forces that are up to 16 times the force gravity (roughly the forces experienced in a 30 mph automobile collision). This is much higher than the previous standard of nine times the force of gravity. These 16g seats are much more likely to withstand the dynamic loads that the aircraft would experience in a crash with survivable impact forces, allowing passengers a better chance to escape the aircraft after such an accident.

Airplanes that were certified after 1988, for example the 777 and A380, were already required to have these seats. While most new airliners are based on models that were certified after 1988, some new airliners based on older designs, such as the 747-400, still had 9g seats installed. Starting October 27, 2009, all airliners will have to meet this standard.

Airplane Airbags
To comply with the new 16g requirement, some airlines will use airbags for some seat locations. These airbags may be incorporated in the seat belt or it could be attached to another part of the aircraft.

Basic Crash Positions
The FAA provides guidance on the kinds of crash positions that you should take for various situations. The video below has suggested positions for regular coach seats, rear facing seats, and for other situations. If you can't play the video, you can also download the audio podcast or the video podcast below:
Six Basic Crash Positions Podcast: MP3, MP4, WMV

Six Basic Crash Positions

Send Us Your Thoughts
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  1. I'm glad to see you're encouraging an attitude of personal responsibility as the most crucial factor in surviving an aircraft crash.

  2. the crash position is not possible for people taller than 6 feet.

  3. I agree that getting into the proper crash position can be hard for taller people. I'm over six feet tall and often fly in coach, and I can't fully get into the classic positions No matter how tall or short you are, do the best you can.

  4. I found this info..

    One recent study done by Popular Mechanics looked at National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data for commercial jet crashes since 1971. The study included 20 major plane accidents that had survivors as well as fatalities. The conclusion of that particular study was that rear passengers had a 40% better chance of surviving an airplane crash than other passengers. Of the 20 accidents, in only five accidents did the front seat passengers come out better. Eleven of the twenty accidents had the rear seat passengers clearly faring better than other passengers. The remaining four accidents were inconclusive or they were not able to tell where people were sitting at the time of the accident. In contrast to that study, a Greenwich University study found that your best chance of getting out alive from a burning aircraft was to be in an aisle seat within five rows of the emergency exit.

  5. Very nice video. I think sitting near to the emergency exit is the perfect place.

  6. I used to like to sit one row ahead of the wing or on the front edge of the wing, figuring if there were a crash and the engines ignited, the plane would be going forward so the fire would be behind me. After looking at videos of airplane crashes, I must conclude that my reasoning was patently false. I used to avoid the back of a plane because it just isn't that nice to sit there. If you sit just ahead of the wing or just on the front edge of the wing, you feel turbulence less. Likewise, I always hated sitting in the forward section of the plane because the only time I got airsick was when I sat there.

    HOWEVER, after watching the video of the fatal crash at Chiang Kai Shek Airport in Taiwan during the approaching winds of a major hurricane, I changed my mind. There was a full investigation, which is shown on the 45 minute video. At the end of the video, the investigator points out that in many crashes, the tail end of the plane breaks off just behind the wings. So if the aircraft is on fire, the worst flames will be near the wings and the front of the plane. The further you sit to the rear, the more time you have before the fire reaches you. If the tail section breaks away from the fuselage, you might not get any fire near you. I guess I always worried about the tail section because the crash stories of those old DC-10 planes had something to do with the tail itself. The investigator says to take the emergency position where you tuck your head down behind the seat in front of you. That is because a huge fireball might come down the inside of the plane and if you tuck your head down, hopefully you will not get burned as badly when the fireball goes by. The seat protects you and tucking your head down protects your face. Finally, he says that the further back you sit in the tail section, the better. Also, know where the emergency exits are. It's different on every plane, so read the card in the pocket of the seat in front of you to locate the nearest exits.

    My father was a frequent flyer and he gave me one piece of advice I would like to share. He said that after you locate the nearest exit door, count how many rows of seats there are between you and the exit. That way, if it's hard to see because of smoke or you are temporarily blinded by another reason (such as a burst of bright light), you can find the exit door by touching each seat ahead of you and stopping when you have counted the correct number.

    On the top airlines, the clothes for the crew are made from mohair. That is because mohair (the wool from Angora goats) does not burn. I used to raise these goats and I can tell you firsthand that is true. (Do not confuse mohair on a clothing tag with Angora. If it says Angora, it is made from Angora rabbit fur!) So, if you don't want your clothes to catch on fire in a plane crash, wear slacks, sweater, and socks made of mohair. Get a travel blanket made of mohair and keep it on your lap. If the plane does catch fire, pull the blanket over your head and then take the tuck position. That blanket could prevent your arms from getting burned. DO NOT WEAR NYLON, NYLON PANTYHOSE, AND DO NOT PUT HAIRSPRAY ON YOUR HAIR. Nylon and some other synthetic materials MELT in fire. If it's too warm to wear a sweater, then take a mohair suit jacket and get a very lightweight mohair or wool summer top. Wool is also very hard to burn. Finally, "kid mohair" is softer than adult mohair. "virgin wool" means it the first shearing of a sheep, which is also soft.

    Thankfully, airplanes today are made as safe as possible. I learned one more thing from the video. If you see that the weather is bad - dense fog, high winds, thunderstorm or heavy snow - and you feel it's not safe to fly, then don't. Delay your flight plans even if you have to buy another ticket. Good pilots don't fly in bad weather. Neither do experienced passengers.