Where are the safest seats on an airplane?

What are your main criteria for choosing where you want to sit on an airplane? For some it might be an aisle for easier access to the restroom, while for others it might be a window seat with a view. Leg room can also be a factor, as can sitting on the fender or in the front instead of the back. A seat over the wing blocks the view while sitting in the back of an aircraft with rear-mounted engines can be noisy. Have you ever thought about the safest seats on an airliner and which ones would offer the best chance of surviving in the event of an accident?

Since planes don’t fly in mountains upside down and you almost always see a tail fin in wreckage, logic would suggest that sitting in the back of the plane would be the safest. That said, there are all sorts of other factors to consider, such as proximity to an exit row and which part of the plane took the brunt of the impact.

Tenerife air disaster

If we look at the world’s worst aviation accident, the 1977 Tenerife disaster when a KLM Boeing 747 collided while taking off with a Pan Am Boeing 747 on the ground, we see the following:

  • All 234 passengers and 14 crew members of the KLM plane died
  • On the Pan American jumbo jet of its 396 passengers and crew, 61 passengers survived

The 61 surviving passengers and crew were all seated in the front of the aircraft, not the rear. This suggests that it has more to do with luck than where you sit as to whether you’ll survive.

61 passengers and crew in the front of the Pan Am aircraft survived. Photo: Getty Images

Writing about the safest seats on an airplane, Time Magazine cited a 35-year study by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) of seats and fatalities. According to the FAA’s report on accidents and fatalities between 1985 and 2020, the worst place to sit is in the middle of the plane. Seats in the middle of the cabin had a fatality rate of 39%, while the front third had 38% and the rear third 32%.

When looking at which seats gave you the best chance of surviving a crash, the middle seats in the back of the plane turned out to be the best with a fatality rate of 28%. The worst seats were on either side of the aisle in the middle of the plane, with a fatality rate of 44%.

Statistically, an aisle seat in the middle has the most deaths. Photo: Ryanair

Another study by the University of Greenwich also determined that following a crash, passengers seated closest to an emergency exit had the best chance of making it out alive.

As we mentioned earlier, the chances of surviving an accident depend more on the circumstances. If the tail of the plane takes the brunt of the impact, the passengers in the back will fare worse. If the nose were to strike first, the people in front of the plane would fare worse.

A middle seat in the back of the plane is the safest. Photo: Ryanair

While plane crashes and death tolls can be shocking, air travel has become safer over the years. This is also particularly the case in relation to other modes of transport. The odds of you dying in a plane crash are 1 in 8,000; the chances of you dying in a car accident are 1 in 112. So the main thing is not to worry about where you sit, because flying is still one of the safest ways to move.

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