The safest seat on a plane

June 30, 2008 6:14:33 AM PDT
It is the question that most nervous flyers ask themselves whenever they board an aircraft: where is the safest place to sit?The answer is now much clearer after an exhaustive study of 105 accidents and personal accounts from almost 2,000 survivors of how they managed to escape from crash landings and onboard fires.

For the best chance of getting out alive from a burning aircraft, people should choose an aisle seat near the front within five rows of an emergency exit.

Commissioned by the British Civil Aviation Authority and carried out by Greenwich University, the study found that the seats with the best survival rate were in the emergency exit row and the row in front or behind it. Between two and five rows from the exit, passengers still have a better than even chance of escaping in a fire but "the difference between surviving and perishing is greatly reduced".

The most dangerous seats are those six or more rows from an exit. The study says: "Here, the chances of perishing far outweigh those of surviving."

Passengers sitting towards the front of the aircraft had a 65 per cent chance of escaping a fire, while the survival rate for those at the rear was 53 per cent. The survival rate in aisle seats was 64 per cent, compared with 58 per cent for other passengers.

A transport safety group said that the findings called into question the increasing trend among airlines for charging passengers extra for exit seats, which have more legroom, or allowing people to select seats online.

One of the fatal accidents analysed in the study was the disaster at Manchester airport in 1985, when 55 people died on a British Airtours Boeing 737 after it caught fire. The majority of those who died were sitting well away from a usable exit. The fire, caused by an exploding engine that punctured a fuel tank in the wing, engulfed one side of the aircraft and prevented escape from several exits.

The study found that the passengers who died were on average sitting more than twice as far away from a usable exit as those who survived. Some of the dead, most of whom were killed by toxic fumes, were sitting 15 rows from the nearest usable exit.

Under international air safety regulations, aircraft must undergo an evacuation test to demonstrate that everyone on board can escape within 90 seconds when half the exits are blocked.

But the study found that this test was flawed because it failed to take sufficient account of people's behaviour in an emergency. It said the tests assumed that no one on board had any "social bonds" with other passengers. Analysis of behaviour in real emergencies showed that many passengers delayed their escape to help friends or relatives. People travelling with colleagues, however, appeared to focus on their own survival and head straight for the exit.

Another flaw with the tests was that people were much more willing to comply with directions from cabin crew under experimental conditions than in real danger. Crew are trained to prevent congestion at exits by directing people to a less busy exit. The study said: "In real emergency situations, where passengers may have a choice of directions in which to escape, they may ultimately ignore crew commands and attempt to use their nearest exit." The survival instinct also tended to result in selfish acts that could delay evacuation, such as people climbing over seats to jump the queue for the exit.

Robert Gifford, director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said the study "shows your choice of seat on a plane really can be a matter of life or death. Your chance of survival should not be based on your ability to pay for an emergency exit seat or to reserve your seat online."

Mr Gifford said airlines should consider putting families and elderly people near the exits. They might not be allowed to sit in the exit row, however, because regulations require passengers in those seats to be fit enough to help to open the door.

Virgin Atlantic charges £50 or £75 one way for a seat in an exit row, but they can only be booked at the airport once the passenger has been seen by airline staff.