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What’s the Safest Seat on an Airplane?

Air travel has entered an especially fraught place in the public consciousness lately, mostly due to a recent spate of incidents in which Boeing planes have caught fire, lost a wheel during takeoff, or sprung a hole mid-flight. These high-profile mishaps have given flying a bad name and made countless passengers ponder which seats on a plane are safest and which are the most dangerous.

Despite all the recent consternation, it’s important to remember that airline travel is remarkably safe. Packing into a full commercial flight may not always be the most comfortable or relaxing experience, but compared to just about any other methods it is one of the least deadly means of transit ever created. Airplane crashes are so rare that getting worked up about which seat is the safest one to plop your butt into is likely going to cause you more mental anguish than it’s worth.

That’s the official line, anyway. The US Federal Aviation Administration is very careful to point out that there isn’t any one section of an airplane that is more or less safe than another. In an email to WIRED, FAA public affairs specialist Rick Breitenfeldt says, “The most important thing passengers can do for their safety on any flight is follow all crewmember instructions.”

While no part of the plane may generally be the safest, there is probably a best spot to be sitting when specific incidents happen. Of course, that’s always going to depend on variables you can’t control. Each airline emergency plays out differently, affecting different seats more than others each time. What may be the best seat in the event of an engine breaking may not be the best place to be when a door gets ripped off mid-flight.

Party in the Back

The prevailing wisdom has long been that the back of a plane is the safest spot to sit. Reporting from Popular Mechanics and Time magazine analyzed 35 years of crash data up to 2015 and found that statistically fewer people who were sitting in the back died in plane crashes. Trouble is, those findings come from somewhat incomplete data. The victims’ seat positions aren’t always included in crash reports, so the data cannot paint a full picture of which zones are safest.

Daniel Kwasi Adjekum, an aviation safety researcher at the University of North Dakota, says there’s still something to those findings, purely based on the fundamental physics that planes adhere to. The front of the plane, often the most appealing place to sit if you’ve got a premium seat or are just eager to hop off that steel tube as fast as possible after landing, is also in a prime position to take the brunt of force from a nosedive.

The back, though liable to separate from the plane in a catastrophic crash, is more likely to stay intact than the front and middle portions that are still connected to the engines.

“The rear section often will break off,” Adjekum says, meaning the latter section of the plane from behind the wings. “Lots of that kinetic energy goes with the front of the aircraft and leaves the back intact.”

Meet in the Middle

The middle section of the plane has a lot going for it in the event of a bumpy flight. The point where the wings meet at the center makes a more stable base that serves as the center of gravity for the plane, making it less inclined to bounce around when hitting turbulence.

“A lot of the oscillatory forces from turbulence are better when you’re in the midsection than the tail section,” Adjekum says. The plane essentially works like a cantilever when it hits bumps midair. “So if you are riding the turbulence, it’s like a seesaw with you on the extended portion of the saw.”

While the middle may be better for turbulence, it’s not necessarily ideal for a catastrophic situation. After all, the middle section is typically where the fuel cells are positioned, meaning if a fire is involved, you’re right on top of the gas tank.

What the middle does have going for it is easier access to the emergency exits in the center of the plane. The closer you are to the exits, the better your chances of survival after a crash.

Aisle, Middle, Window

OK, so toward the back of the plane yet still close to an emergency exit is probably your safest bet. You’ve got your row, but now which seat to pick?

Again, there are advantages and disadvantages of each option. Sitting in the aisle gets you closer to whatever exit you might need to head to in an emergency but also leaves you more vulnerable to getting walloped by falling luggage or loose debris hurtling down the aisle. Sitting by the window lets you see what’s going on outside, giving you a situational advantage, but it leaves you pinned against the wall and waiting until the other people in your row squeeze out first. Occupying the middle gives you a couple of human shields on either side of you to cushion any potential blows, but the middle seat is uncomfortable and an unpopular first choice.

Exit Strategy

If you’ve got aviation anxiety, all this back-and-forth of trying to figure out the perfect spot to sit is likely to only cause you more inner turbulence. Frankly, it’s probably not worth the worry.

Airplane accidents are ridiculously rare. According to data from International Air Transport Association, which represents the global airline industry, there was one accident that resulted in fatalities among 37.7 million flights in 2023. But when accidents do happen, each one is a little different and will affect the plane in different ways. Ultimately, Adjekum says, your chances of making it through an emergency in flight has less to do with where you happen to sit and more with how well trained your flight crew is—and how closely you listen to their instructions. (That’s why they’re all so serious about you paying attention to those safety announcements.)

“Anytime you sit in an aircraft, the first thing to do is to have situational awareness,” Adjekum says. “Listen to the instructions from the cabin crew, because they know their job and they are there to ensure that you are safe, no matter where you are seated.”