On Tuesday, one engine on the plane disintegrated, spraying shrapnel that depressurized the plane and forced the pilot to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. The incident resulted in the death of a passenger, which was the first fatality on a US passenger airline in more than nine years.
In the rare case that a plane goes down, some research indicates that the safest place to be sitting is in a middle seat near the back of a plane.
There haven't been many crash tests with jetliners. But in 2012, researchers decided to take an uncrewed Boeing 727, fill it with crash test dummies and cameras, and fly it into the Mexican Desert. (The Discovery Channel made a documentary about the effort.)
The researchers directed the plane into the ground as if it were attempting an emergency landing. As it turned out, the front of the plane wasn't a good place to be.
The cockpit was torn away and some of the seats in the front flew hundreds of feet. The impact, whiplash, and destruction at the front of the plane could have seriously injured or killed passengers seated in that area — likely those in the first class and more desirable seats.
Passengers at the back were still jostled around and in some cases likely to suffer head injuries, especially if they were not wearing seat-belts. But overall, they were much better off.
Those findings align with a 2015 analysis by Time magazine of the Federal Aviation Administration’s CSRTG Aircraft Accident Database. Looking at crash data from 17 plane crashes with seat charts that could be analysed, researchers found that seats in the back third of a plane had a fatality rate of 32% in those incidents. Middle seats near the back had a 28% fatality rate.
Passengers seated in the middle third of the plane, by contrast, had a 39% fatality rate, and aisle seats in the middle of planes had a 44% fatality rate. Seats in the front third of the plane had a 38% rate. Although some researchers have calculated that aisle seats may be safer than middle or window seats, the Time analysis found that at least in the middle of the plane, they were the least safe. And middle seats near the back appeared to be safest.
Of course all crashes are different. If the back of a plane were to hit the ground first, it'd most likely be safer to be sitting in the front. But from the available crash data we have so far, people at the back seem to fare better, especially if they can get to an emergency exit.
It's worth reiterating that flying is far safer than other forms of transport. People's lifetime odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 112 — close to 1%. Lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 8,000 — or about 0.0125%.
But if you're feeling nervous, go ahead and reserve one of those back seats.