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Summary – It is a pleasing paradox that possibly the least preferred seat on a commercial airliner, is probably the safest one.

But to begin with a few general words on seats. Firstly they, along with the interiors of all aircraft, are not actually made by the aircraft OEM but by specialist companies that compete to supply aircraft interiors. That said, Boeing specify an economy seat that is a couple of centimetres less wide than that of Airbus and with a 28” separation – the so-called seat pitch – (Airbus specify 30”) to squeeze in a few more passengers into their slightly smaller airframes. Small difference maybe, but over a 3–5-hour flight this makes a big difference.

Then there are some interesting technical issues.

  • Firstly, on most aircraft, seats are certified to carry 150kg which is surely the 99-percentile man – that he will anyway likely overflow the typical 18” width of a Boeing economy seat, offers two justifications for airlines’ wishing to charge for two seats under those circumstances.

    (Note – in our OGP charter world, it is also worth noting that cargo can thus be secured into seats using the safety harness: a seat cares not if cargo is self-loading with two feet or static and placed there by a third party).
  • Today seats are now stressed to 9’gs (9 x gravitational pull) – it used to be 5. All well and good but at those forces, unless an astronaut or fighter pilot, Passengers will anyway most likely be unconscious!
  • More importantly, in the event of such ‘9g’ crash, if not actually cut in two by the lap strap, folk will suffer such bad organ damage that, in the event of survival of the event itself, an ensuing slower death is assured. A shoulder strap (better two) is a lifesaver. Such has always been known but, until now, only airline staff have been thus privileged (and, most recently, First & Business class also).
  • The seats also face in the wrong direction. In the event of a crash, aft facing seats would largely mitigate the above two problems, increasing the chances of survival significantly. Airlines don’t do anything about this principally due to a perception that passengers like to see where they are going. And then there is the cost. Sadly, one cannot just turn the seat around – the seat structure is completely different. To do so on a new aircraft type would be easy, but that would highlight this safety issue: for any airline, the thought of then having to retro-fit the rest of a large fleet of in-service older aircraft will assure that this, and shoulder harnesses, will never happen – in coach anyway…….!

As stated above, in airline manufacture, unlike cars, the OEMs do not fit the interiors. This is done by specialist service providers contracted directly by the end-user airlines and to design limitations set, and overseen, by national regulatory authorities.  So, this element, so fundamental to an airline image and passenger satisfaction, has little to do with the aircraft OEM. It also represents only slightly more than 1% of an airliner’s cost.  Indeed, while on the subject, with respect to airliner cost, OEMs are directly responsible for the manufacture of only about a quarter of the end-product. Having developed and certified a new design (at huge expense) they actually only build the cockpit and hull structures and sometimes the wings and tailplane. The rest is furnished by other specialist service providers and only bolted on, or fitted into, said hull by the aircraft OEM. As such, were an aircraft manufacturer to go bankrupt or withdraw from the market, the impact on their aircraft end-users is little more than an administrative inconvenience.

 In previous articles we investigate how airliners are controlled of which increasingly, the near-total reliance on digital technologies, makes gloomy reading for analogue man. It also makes the subject at hand, namely, the safest seat on an airliner if one of these flying whales goes out of control, a subject of considerable relevance.

In first class one pays for luxury, a premium service and to be the first off, the aircraft: but one is also the first to die. The cockpit module is manufactured separately to the main hull onto which it is bolted. It is a very strong structure, with significantly higher stress tolerances than the main passenger carrying hull, and into which, in the event of an emergency, most of the working crew strap themselves (using said four or five-point seat harnesses).  The rest of the hull, where we the fare-paying, single lap-strapped masses are seated, is relatively flimsy in comparison. So, in the event of a crash-landing, it is certain that the hull will concertina into the strongly reinforced cockpit section, thus crushing to death all those high-paying premium flyers at the front.

 Business class passengers are even worse off because, in addition to the crushing element described above, they are in the vicinity of the wing in which many hundreds of gallons of flammable aviation fuel are stored – so for them crushing and incineration are in delightful prospect (typically not highlighted in the glossy advertising). And if that wasn’t bad enough, any very dangerous cargo goods (DG) needing transportation are typically loaded in the wing box section, it being the strongest part of the hull hence, in the cargo area beneath the business class seats. Such cargo includes killer viruses, poisonous gases, explosive chemicals, and even radioactive waste to name but a few of the more delightful possibilities. This is due to the considerable bulk and associated greater weight of the DG packaging, which, of necessity, needs to be located near the aircraft centre of gravity and in the strongest part, of the hull – and one pays a significant premium for the privilege of being seated above this refuse…………?!

The high passenger density in economy, inevitably, is an inherent danger. But the biggest single hazard are the overhead baggage bins. Their design specification is to 7kg per pax – need one say more………?  The effect of the almost universal abuse of this baseline criterion is that, in the event of a crash, the locker structures are overwhelmed by the force of the impact and come crashing down with great force, mercifully breaking the necks of virtually all beneath.

 Only one row of seats remains completely unaffected by this mayhem – the back row. With it being located forward of the toilets, and with the lockers above usually taken over by the cabin staff and blessed with a general ‘pocky’ seat appearance, such makes this place less than a ‘des-res’ for the duration of any flight. But consider this. When those overburdened overhead lockers come crashing down, the forces of impact will also direct them forwards in the direction of flight. Hence, those in the last row will, typically, not be ‘topped’ by the falling overhead bins. Far from the wings, neither will they be burned to death. There is also no cargo space in the tail, so the horror of DG is not an issue. Finally, as the hull concertinas, it whip-lashes and weakens, often causing it to break, typically some three-quarters of the way aft. Hence, those passengers still alive in the broken tail-plane unit (typically, only those in the last row), will likely be able to simply walk or swim out of the open hull.  A recent example of this was in an Eva Air crash-landing at Los Angeles whereby the tail fin unit broke off, spinning across the airfield. When it came to rest, the four Flight Attendants strapped in their seats in that section (of course, with their 4-point harnesses) simply got out and walked away without even a bruise to show for it.!

The (less) good-old days….

Tail seat on WW-II Bombers with Elsen toilet
Imperial War Museum Collection

Today – good seats, better Toilet

Turkish Airlines Brochure

Back against the wall

Daily Mail Newspaper

So, safer though it may be, when should the use this essentially undesirable seat row be considered.? Firstly, for any airline, when there is an expectation of heavy rain, or worse still, heavy snow, at the destination airport. In such circumstances, it is possible that a combination of minor piloting errors, possible gusting crosswinds and/or heavy braking on a slippery runway surface, is a quite frequent cause of runway excursions into the grass or worse.  In a more general context, the discomforts of the rear row should also be considered when using airlines in developing countries and with all but the largest LCCs (low-cost carriers).  

For LCCs this is not a structural issue.  The cost and method of operating a given type of airliner is very much the same whether operated by an established legacy airline or an LCC – the substantial fuel costs are exactly the same. Hence the savings necessary to reduce (LCC) ticket costs, in addition to slashing administrative overhead and infrastructural elements, are found largely in three ways – all with negative attributes in a safety context.

Firstly, in the use of lower capital cost (i.e., older) aircraft which typically are using previous generation flight technologies and inevitably which, through wear-and-tear, are more likely to suffer unscheduled technical events. Similarly, by maximizing aircraft utilization, through reduced turn-round times, can only have negative maintenance implications.  And thirdly, crew costs: experienced pilots will generally seek to work with legacy airlines where pay and perks are better. So, by dint of lower wages, LCC airliners are flown by less experienced Captains and First officers, the latter, on occasions, almost fresh out of Pilot school.

In terms of general safety, all the above are negatives. Hence, by way of mitigation, to subject oneself to the minor discomforts of the last row for the couple of hours of a short-haul flight makes good sense. And there are positives. LCCs generally forgo the use of flying bridges resulting in the back row passengers being among the first off the aircraft and onto the bus using the rear doors. Further to that, the back rows of economy, along with the front rows, are also generally the first to be served. Finally, one is near to the location where flight attendants are typically hiding when ignoring the passenger staff call button, making them more responsive to a good-old analogue shout which is more difficult for them to ignore!

In short, notwithstanding all the negatives highlighted above, the chances of a flight accident are minimal – travel on roads is significantly more dangerous. But, for any given flight, should the negatives impacting safety be perceived to increase, just as in the workplace, mitigating the associated risks, even if a cause for minor discomfort, is simple common sense.