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 made by the OEM but by specialist companies. That said Boeing specify an economy seat that is a couple of centimetres less than Airbus and with a 28” separation (Airbus specify 30”) so as to squeeze in a few more passengers into their slightly smaller airframes. Small difference maybe, but over a three hour flight this can make 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 an airline economy seat, offers two justifications for airlines’ wishing to charge for two seats under those circumstances.
(Note – in our 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 stressed to 9’gs (9 x gravitational pull) – it used to be 5’gs. All well and good but at those forces, unless an astronaut or fighter pilot, a Pax. will anyway 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 life-saver. 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 likely never happen – in coach anyway…….!
As indicated 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, actually has little to do with the aircraft OEM. It also represents barely 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, the impact on their aircraft end-users is actually little more than an administrative inconvenience.
Another day we will look into how these birds are controlled, but today, let us return to the subject at hand, namely, the safest seat in the event that one of these flying whales goes out of control. 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 is manufactured separately to the main hull to which it is bolted. It is a very strong structure with significantly higher stress tolerances than the main hull and into which, in the event of an emergency, most of the crew strap themselves (using said four or five-point seat harnesses). The rest of the hull 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 unit, thus crushing all those premium flyers at the front.
Business class Pax. are even worse off because, in addition to the crushing element described above, they are located in the vicinity of the wing in which many hundreds of tonnes of flammable aviation fuel is stored. If that wasn’t bad enough, with the wing box being the strongest part of the hull, any very dangerous cargo goods (DG) being transported, are loaded in the cargo area beneath the business class seats – killer viruses, explosive chemicals and even radioactive waste to name but a few of the more delightful possibilities: this is due to the bulk and the weight of the DG packaging needing to be located in the strongest part of an aircraft. ……………..and one pays a significant premium for the privilege?!
The high passenger density in economy, is inevitably an inherent danger in itself. 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 they coming 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 last row. Being located forward of the toilets, with the lockers above usually taken over by the cabin staff and blessed with a general ‘pocky’ seat appearance, makes them 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 also direct them forwards in the direction of flight. Hence, those in the last row will 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 Pax. 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 (with their 4-point harnesses) simply got out and walked away without even a bruise to show for it.!
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 cross-winds and/or heavy braking is a quite frequent cause of an aircraft runway excursion 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).
This is a simple function of pilot experience. The cost of operating a given type of airliner is pretty much the same whether operated by an established legacy airline or an LCC – the substantial fuel costs are exactly the same. The savings necessary to reduce ticket costs are thus found mainly in the use of lower capital cost (older) aircraft, reducing administrative overhead and infrastructural elements, maximizing aircraft utilization through reduced turn-round times (with negative maintenance implications) and crew costs (experienced pilots generally seek to work with legacy airlines where pay and perks are better). In terms of general safety, all the above are negatives. Hence, by way of mitigation, subjecting 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 safety negatives increase, just as in the work-place, mitigating the associated risks is simple common sense.