Yesterday, @KLMIndia shared and then deleted the following tweet: “According to data studies by Time, the fatality rate for the seats in the middle of the plane is the highest. However, the fatality rate for the seats in the front is marginally lesser and is least for seats at the rear third of the plane.”
The Washington Post has a screenshot of the deleted tweet, along with its image of a jaunty seat flying on a bed of clouds under the text “Seats at the back of a plane are the safest!”
KLM India, meanwhile, issued this statement:
We would like to sincerely apologise for a recent update. The post was based on a publically available aviation fact, and isn't a @KLM opinion. It was never our intention to hurt anyone's sentiments. The post has since been deleted.— KLM India (@KLMIndia) July 17, 2019
I’m not going to judge whether airlines should or shouldn’t tweet facts about air fatality rates — what I’m really interested in is whether the deleted KLM India tweet was accurate. Are seats at the back of the plane really the safest?
The Time study KLM references appears to be this analysis from 2015:
TIME went through the Federal Aviation Administration’s CSRTG Aircraft Accident Database looking for accidents with both fatalities and survivors. We found 17 with seating charts that could be analysed. The oldest accident that fit our criteria was in 1985; the most recent was in 2000.
The analysis found that the seats in the back third of the aircraft had a 32% fatality rate, compared with 39% in the middle third and 38% in the front third.
Looking at row position, we found that the middle seats in the rear of the aircraft had the best outcomes (28% fatality rate). The worst-faring seats were on the aisle in the middle third of the cabin (44% fatality rate).
Popular Mechanics did similar research on historical crash data, and agreed that the back seats were the safest:
Where detailed seating charts were available, we also calculated survival rates for various parts of the passenger cabin. Again, the trend was clear: The rear cabin (seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing) had the highest average survival rate at 69 per cent. The overwing section had a 56 per cent survival rate, as did the coach section ahead of the wing. First/business-class sections (or in all-coach planes, the front 15 per cent) had an average survival rate of just 49 per cent.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, told the Washington Post that these studies should be taken with the tiny packet of salt that comes with your aeroplane food:
“Many people have tried and failed to produce a scientifically defensible answer to this question,” FAA communications manager Lynn Lunsford said in an email. “There are too many variables, and this is the important one — so few accidents — that a simple answer is probably not statistically defensible.”
That said, the Time study also noted that passengers seated near an exit “are more likely to get out alive,” which might be as close as we get to the truth of things.
To increase your odds of making it out of the plane after the moment of impact, you’ll want to be wearing comfortable clothing made of natural or flame-resistant materials, as The Flight Expert explains. (Polyester, nylon, and acrylics are a really bad idea if the crash includes fire.)
Although loose clothing can help you with the gas that will swell in your stomach as you fly, you don’t want your clothes to be so loose that they could catch on things and slow you down. Don’t forget about your shoes — ideally, you’ll be wearing sturdy, full-foot-coverage shoes you can run in.
And then relax, as the flight attendants put it, and enjoy your flight.