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The Safest Seats on an Airplane During a Crash

Your first-time flying can be an overwhelmingly terrifying, yet exciting, experience that everyone should experience at least once in life. For many, air travel causes a sense of extreme dread or panic at the thought of being stuck inside a closed space for hours at a time. For others, they may worry about being involved in an air crash. If you are completely terrified of flying, you are not alone, in fact it is estimated that 1 in 3 Americans feel anxiety or are afraid of flying.

What you may be surprised to find, however, is that flying has been statistically proven to be the safest mode of transportation. Every year, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) shares data gathered about the amount of fatalities each year, for all modes of transportation.  2016 was the 7th consecutive year that had no fatalities in U.S. certified scheduled airlines.

Recently, it has been found that driving on the highway is the most dangerous mode of travel, with driver’s having a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a motor vehicle crash. Occupants, on the other hand, have a 1 in 654 chance of dying in a fatal car accident. In fact, there were 37,461 highway fatalities in 2017.

The aviation statistics are far less drastic, with only .06 fatalities per 1 million flights. To put it simply, there was 1 fatal accident per ever 16 million flights. Which makes flying the safest mode of transportation when compared to other modes.

However, accidents do occur, so making sure you know how to survive an air crash is always helpful. This article will help you choose the safest seats on an airplane and giving you the best chance of surviving an accident, if one were to occur.

The “Plus Three Minus Eight” Rule

This argument is further supported by a recent in-depth analysis by Boeing that studied worldwide commercial flights from the years 2007 to 2016 to determine whether certain parts of the flight are more dangerous than others. Boeing found that the 48% of all fatal accidents occurred during a flight’s final descent and landing. Of all the accidents caused during the descent and landing were responsible for 46% of all onboard fatalities, regardless of the accident.

Boeing also found that only 11% of major accidents took place at cruising altitude. Additionally, the second-most dangerous portion of the flight are the takeoff and initial climb, which accounted for a combined 13% of onboard fatalities.

The takeoff, initial climb, final approach, and landing are referred to as the “plus three minus eight” rule, which simply states that an estimated 80% of all plane crashes happen within the first three minutes of a flight or the last eight minutes before landing.

With that being said, it is very important to be vigilant, prepared, and aware of your surroundings during this time. Wait to take a nap or put in earphones until the plane is out of the danger zone.

Related: Google Flights Guide: How to Find the Cheapest Flights

Reasons for Crashes

The reasons and circumstances that lead to airplane crashes are numerous and can rarely be pinpointed to one specific cause. In fact, most plane crashes are a result of multiple, consecutive errors or failures that ended up in disaster. Consequently, because aircraft accidents are caused by several different factors at once, it is hard to pinpoint the exact statistics as to what factor causes the most, or deadliest, accidents.

Experts in the field widely accept the following statistics as reasonable representation for the factors that lead to accidents:

  • Pilot Error — 55%
  • Aircraft Mechanical Error — 17%
  • Weather — 13%
  • Sabotage — 8%
  • Other — 7%

With these statistics, it must be strongly emphasized that just having one of these factors will result in an accident; instead it is quite the opposite, the aircraft must have more than one of these, if not all, factors present to crash. To explain further, if your pilot makes an error while in the air and fixes it, then you are fine. If the aircraft has a mechanical error, like a damaged engine, but has an experienced pilot who is able to safely pilot the plane in this circumstance, then you are fine.

However, it is when these reasons stack up, such as an inexperienced pilot making the wrong decision after a mechanical error during a thunderstorm, when you are more likely to have a serious accident.

This cause and effect theory are appropriately named the “swiss cheese model” and is widely recognized throughout the industry. This model shows pieces of swiss cheese lined up on a table, each with its own unique location of the various holes in its body. Each hole represents a reason why a plane may crash. When lined up consecutively, there is little chance that you will be able to look through the first hole and be able to see the wall, as the holes are rarely lined up perfectly.

This represents how one factor can present itself but is reconciled through another decision. However, when you have the holes line up perfect, where you can look through one hole of the cheese block and see through to the other side of the line, is when you have an accident. Essentially, this model shows that an accident is preventable through appropriate measures being put into action as situations arise. When the measures are ignored or unknown to the pilot, therefore allowing other circumstances to arise, is when the aircraft is more likely to crash.

The Safest Seats on an Airplane

  • Emergency Exits

No matter what type of accident you encounter, seats closest to the emergency exits are always safer in comparison to other seats in the cabin.

  • Rear Seats

Studies conducted by both parties found that seats in nearest to the back of the plane are safer than any other section. In 11 out of the 20 crashes, passengers in the back seats of the plane clearly fared better. Only 5 accidents favored passengers sitting in the front of the plane. Three out of the 20 crashes were considered “toss-ups”, because no pattern of seating showed a favorable outcome; and one accident revealed that the seat positions could not be determined.

Seven out of the 11 accidents that favored passengers sitting in the rear of the plane had striking disparities between the survival rate of the back-seaters when compared to other sections.

Popular Mechanics found that rear cabin seats, meaning the seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing, had the highest survival rate at 69%.  This data shows that passengers sitting in the back section of the plane are 40% more likely to survive an accident then those in the front section of the plane and are 13% more likely to survive compared to overwing and cabin passengers.

When looking at the more recent TIME analysis, the argument that seats in the rear section of the plane are safer, is still true. The study from TIME found that the seats in the back third of the aircraft had a 32% fatality rate.

  • Overwing/Middle Seats

The second highest survival rate was tied at 56% for both the overwing and coach section ahead of the wing. Overwing seats had a 39% survival rate, making it the second safest section of the plane. Additionally, the emergency exits on a plane are almost always located in the middle of the plane, separating the front and back sections.

Emergency exits are extremely important in deciding whether a passenger will fare well after surviving a plane crash. While the survival rate for the middle section of the plane is not the best, the location of the emergency exits makes them a viable option when the rear seats are filled up.

  • First Class/Front Seats

Despite having the most perks like more leg room, comfier seats, and better access to the loading and exit ramps, the seats in the front of the plane are not safe. When compared to other sections of the plane, first-class, or the first 15 rows of seats in an all coach plane, have a drastic disparity between survival rates and other parts of the plane.

Popular Mechanics also found that the first/business-class sections of the plane, including the front 15% of seats, had the lowest survival rate in an accident at 49%. Additionally, the analysis conducted by TIME also found that the first-class seats or seats near the front of the plane had the highest fatality rate at 39%.

  • Aisle vs. Middle vs. Window Seats

TIME’s analysis also looked at the fatality rates of row position along with the particular seating section. They found that the middle seats in the rear of the aircraft had the best outcomes with a 28% fatality rate, while the worst-faring seats were aisle seats in the middle third of the cabin, with a 44% fatality rate.

Additionally, other studies looking into the survival rate of seat locations also found that the aisle seats in the rear third of the plane had a 66% survival rate. Meanwhile, the middle seats in the rear third of the plane had the highest survival rate at 72%.

  • The Five Row Rule

It is also recommended that, in the highly unlikely scenario that you are in a crash, you should know what to do. If you find yourself in a crashing airplane, always brace yourself in hopes to limit the damage to yourself. Additionally, always know how many rows are in front of you to an emergency exit and always know where the exit nearest to your seat is located.

Furthermore, to make sure your chances of survival are high in the unlikely event of a crash, you should look for seats that fit the five-row rule. The five-row rule is simple: you are more likely to survive an accident if your seat is five rows or less from an emergency exit. After analyzing over 100 plane crashes, Professor Ed Galea found that the average survivors of these accidents were within five rows from an emergency exit.

Sitting in a seat that is 5 rows or further from an emergency exit drastically change the outcome, with Galea stating that “the chances of perishing far outweigh the chances of survival”. The science behind this phenomenon is relatively simple.

If you are in a burning building, or plane, you are more likely to survive if you are close in location to an exit, as you don’t have to travel through as much smoke or burning debris. If you are further away from an exit, then you have more smoke to travel through and inhale, lowering your chances of getting out alive.


Of course, if you just survived a plane crash, make sure you know how to execute your plan of escape. Many experts advise that most survivors of the initial impact of the plane will sit around in disbelief that they survived the crash. After this, they also tend to sit around and wait for rescuers to reach them.

This is the worst thing you can do. If you just survived impact, you must exit the plane immediately. If there is a fire in an engine of the plane, you have about 80 seconds of free time before the fire burns the aluminum of the gas container. Once the fire burns through the aluminum, the plane will explode from the fire reaching the gas.

With air travel being declared as the safest mode of transportation, you should not worry about dying in a plane crash. However, if one were to occur, you now have the knowledge on how to survive and what seats give you the best chance. While this information is always helpful, do not worry, as you do only have about a 1% chance of being in an accident.

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