Friday, January 16, 2009

Despite industry contention, there is safest place to sit in an airplane to survive a dreaded crash

Popular Mechanics magazine -- in the aftermath of the miracle survival of all passengers in the airplane crash yesterday in New York City -- has defied the airline industry taboo and contends that there is a safest place to sit.

I've always felt there was. You probably have, too. But the industry has always firmly denied the truth. Not every flight, however, is going to have a hero named Captain Sully to save the day.

So in the following snippet from the Popular Mechanics' article, here is the truth:

MYTH: It Doesn't Matter Where You Sit

"One seat is as safe as the other."
-Boeing Web site

"It's an age-old question. There's just no way to say."
-Federal Aviation Administration spokesman

"There is no safest seat."

REALITY: It's Safer In the Back.
The funny thing about all those expert opinions: They're not really based on hard data about actual airline accidents. A look at real-world crash stats, however, suggests that the farther back you sit, the better your odds of survival. Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front.

That's the conclusion of an exclusive Popular Mechanics study that examined every commercial jet crash in the United States, since 1971, that had both fatalities and survivors. The raw data from these 20 accidents has been languishing for decades in National Transportation Safety Board files, waiting to be analyzed by anyone curious enough to look and willing to do the statistical drudgework.

And drudgework it was. For several weeks, we pored over reports filed by NTSB crash investigators, and studied seating charts that showed where each passenger sat and whether they lived or died. We then calculated the average fore-and-aft seating position of both survivors and fatalities for each crash.

We also compared survival rates in four sections of the aircraft. Both analytical approaches clearly pointed to the same conclusion: It's safer in the back.

In 11 of the 20 crashes, rear passengers clearly fared better. Only five accidents favored those sitting forward. Three were tossups, with no particular pattern of survival. In one case, seat positions could not be determined.

In seven of the 11 crashes favoring back-seaters, their advantage was striking.

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