Travel & Activities

Play the Odds In the Sky – The Safest Plane Seat?

Plenty of people are fearful about flying,  although you’re actually much safer zipping through the clouds buckled into your airplane seat than you were as you sped to the airport, past drivers who were gabbing on their cells, enjoying a sandwich, texting, having a good cry or applying make-up. (Sometimes all at once.)

And let’s not talk about the folks who are stoned, drunk, and/or falling asleep at the wheel.

Airplane pilots, one trusts, are doing none of these things. And even if they were, modern jets, we’re told, can pretty much fly themselves. The reassuring fact is that in the past 30 years, there have been just 368 commercial aircraft accidents in this country.

Nevertheless, Time Magazine just devoted a page to the topic of  “Where’s The Safest Place to Sit on a Plane?” To answer this question, they took a look at a study of accidents since 1985 with both fatalities and survivors.

The worst place to sit? Survival rates in aisle seats in the middle of the cabin are 57% worse than in the safest seats.

An aisle seat in the middle of the cabin is, of course, where I always sit.

We all have a strategy when it comes to seat selection.  Windows are the most popular, although some, like me, prefer the aisle for the mobility it offers. (I get up so often to stretch my legs that it seems rude to sit anywhere else.) And because sitting over the wings offers the smoothest ride, I usually end up in an aisle seat in the center of the plane.

Is it a little disquieting to realize that if left to my own devices. I’ll choose one of the least safest seats on the plane?


But it gets better. The back of the aircraft, we’re told, is safer than the front. (The fatality rate at the front of the plane is 38%, compared with 32% at the rear.)  Which means? Flying Economy is actually safer than flying First Class. (Time to rethink that First Class upgrade?)

The safest seats, according to Time? The middle seats in the rear third of the plane have the lowest fatality rate.  (28%, compared with 32% for a window or aisle seat.)

In fact, middle seats in general are safer than aisle or window seats.

Which means that the least popular seats — middle seats — are also the safest. Ironic, huh?  (Maybe the airlines can re-brand that hated middle seat. They could start calling it the “lucky middle seat” and charge extra!)

But is enduring the middle seat worth that extra margin of safety? When I asked my Facebook pals (mostly window flyers, with a smattering of folks who prefer the aisle) if knowing the stats would cause them to switch to a middle seat, the answer was a resounding No.

“I’m sticking with the window. If I’m gonna go, I want to see where I’m going.”

“Nope. When your number is up, it’s up. Why not go with comfort?”

“My legs are so long I’d have to stand up in the middle seat.”

“The only way I’m sitting in the middle seat is if the Olsen twins are sitting on either side of me.”

So what have I learned from all this? The next time I fly, I’m going to play the odds and ask for an aisle seat in the back of the plane. But actually choose to fly in a middle seat?

No way.

Since the lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are just one in 8,015, I’ll take that tiny extra chance. (Who says librarians aren’t risk takers?)

Still, someone has to fly in those middle seats. Sometimes, if you book at the last minute, they are all that’s left. But now, thanks to Time, there’s a silver lining.

The next time you’re stuck in the middle, squeezed in between a overly friendly chatterbox in the window seat and a stinky sandwich eater on the aisle, you’ll be able to take some consolation, as you struggle to claim an armrest, from the fact that if the plane goes down, you’re just a tiny bit more likely to make it out alive than they are.

After which you can order a couple of Bloody Marys, fall asleep and dream that you’re sitting in First Class.

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    “The next time you’re stuck in the middle […] as you struggle to claim an armrest….” I’m a United 1K flyer, which means I’m pretty much *never* in the middle seat. (Heck, I’m rarely in Economy. Based on the Time Magazine report, all 1Ks will all die first.) But I’ve been there enough times in the past, and feel the pain (well, discomfort) of the middle seater — so I always voluntarily give the ‘shared’ armrest to the guy or gal in middle. All I ask is that the person respect personal space, and not stick his/her elbows beyond the armrest.

    I believe if it were customary for anyone in the window or aisle seats to relinquish the shared armrests to those in the middle seats, then sitting in the middle seat wouldn’t be nearly as undesirable as it is now.

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    I’m totally a middle-of-the-plane, aisle seat kind of person. I need to be able to stand up without having to wake 2 people up.

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    Barbara Hammond

    Thanks for the chuckle, Roz. I used to be terrified of flying, but I’ve gotten past it. I almost enjoy it now. No, that’s a lie, but fear of flying isn’t the issue as much as the cramped quarters and never knowing what you might have to sit next to.

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    Ines Roe

    Well, thank you. You certainly have made getting stuck in the middle seat a bearable situation. I hate to fly – not so much about the possible danger but more about the associated hassle – delayed flights, missed connections, lost bags etc etc etc. But unfortunately in order to see some of the people I love I have to fly. I too usually try to get the aisle. Unless I am flying with my husband. He will usually get the aisle seat. Hard to know that his is the more dangerous seat. But, I guess if the plane goes down all our chances are slim.

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    Mary Lanzavecchia

    When I was younger (20’s and 30’s) and traveled frequently for business, I usually preferred the window; staring out at the clouds offered a “nice” way to be anti-social without being rude. However, a cross-country flight when I was about 6 and a half months pregnant gave me a whole new appreciation for the aisle while validating my distaste for the middle seat. On that flight, I started out on in the middle between 2 larger passengers. Needless to say, my frequent need for the bathroom was eventually met with an offer to switch seats. Now, though I still enjoy the view out the window (especially flying in or out of San Diego), I often opt for the aisle.

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    Lisa at Grandma's Briefs

    I always try to sit as close to the front as possible simply because I abhor waiting for everyone to get their darn stuff when getting off the plane. Makes me claustrophobic (and ridiculously annoyed). But… I suppose I’ll smile and move farther back next time. Maybe. Either way, I’m safer (and less stressed) on planes than in vehicles, especially if someone else is driving the car.

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