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Airline Accidents are Rare
Before you spend a lot of time trying to find the safest seat on an airplane for your next commercial flight, realize that the odds of being on an airline flight with one of the top 25 safest airlines that has a crash resulting in the death of a passenger is one in 5.4 million. Airliners are much safer than in the days of the De Haviland Comet. On the other hand, if you are in an airliner that crashes with resulting fatalities, the survival rate of passengers on these aircraft is about 30 percent. Selecting a statistically safer seat may help to improve your odds if you do have the one-in-a-million bad luck to be flying on a commercial aircraft that crashes or ditches.
Ditching is when an airplane is still being flown by the pilot, but must land somewhere that is not a runway. A famous example of ditching is the U.S. Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River in January 2009. In that incident there were no fatalities. A crash is when the pilot has little or no control of the aircraft or the result of a ditching attempt gone wrong.
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Survivor Airplane Seats
The airline companies, aircraft manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration have put out quotes indicating one seat on an airliner is as safe as any other. In 2007, Popular Mechanics magazine dug up airline crash data dating back to 1971 and looked at where the survivors were sitting in airliner crashes with fatalities.
Popular Mechanics found the safest seats on an airliner are in the rear of the aircraft, behind the wing. The study revealed that passengers in the rear cabin had a 40 percent higher survival rate than those riding up front in first/business class.
From a physics point of view, a higher survival rate in the rear of an airplane makes sense. In any crash where the plane comes down in some sort of flying attitude, the front of the aircraft will be the first to start absorbing the energy of the crash. The energy dissipation is in the form of violent deconstruction of the aircraft. Airplanes have a tendency to break apart front to back, and when the rear of the plane starts to come apart, the plane may be moving at a slower speed and the destruction may be less violent. The front cabin of a crashed aircraft may come completely apart while the rear may stay together, providing some protection to the passengers.
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Surviving a Ditching
If you are on an airliner that ditches, the passengers on board may mostly survive impact, and the important survival point becomes exiting the airplane quickly, especially ditching in water. In this situation, the safest seat on the plane is the one where you can quickly reach an exit and get out of the aircraft. The University of Greenwich Fire Safety & Engineering Group studied over 100 airplane crashes and determined survival rates go up if you sit nearer to an emergency exit. The recommendation was within 5 rows of an exit, and aisle seats give a slightly higher level of safety.
It makes sense to choose a seat where you can quickly move to an emergency exit. If you have a choice of seats, choose one within a few rows of an emergency exit. With the rear of the plane as the safest in a crash, an aisle seat a few rows behind the rearmost over wing exit would be a good choice to make as the safest seat on airplane .
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Popular Mechanics http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/aviation/safety/4219452
University of Greenwich FSEG http://fseg.gre.ac.uk/fire/fseg-in-media.html
U.S. Air Force Accident Investigation School
Photo Credit: illuminea at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution