They don’t reverse into mountains
That’s how I first heard the theory that it’s safer to sit at the back of a plane than at the front. It turns out there’s something to it: back in 2007, Popular Mechanics magazine looked at data on all the US plane crash fatalities over 35 years and found a roughly 40% higher risk of death in front of the wing.
Stuff is now reporting on a British TV stunt, where a plane full of crash-test dummies was deliberately crashed in the Sonoran Desert. The test found that the front of the plane experienced higher accelerations, so you would be better off near the back. It also found that the brace position helped. This, of course, applies to only one form of plane crash — the ‘controlled flight into terrain’, and only to a subset of those. In some crashes no-one dies; in others everyone dies.
The conclusion that economy class is safer in general is much more dubious. It can’t be much safer, since the chance of dying in a ‘fatal air incident’ is very, very, very small wherever you sit (Wikipedia claims about 1 per 10 million journeys). Crashes are only a subset of fatal incidents, and the benefit of sitting near the back must be substantially smaller even than this. As a comparison, on an 8+ hour flight, the chance of pulmonary embolism is about 16 times higher than the chance of dying in a fatal air incident, and nearly 50 times high for a 12+ hour flight, so a relatively small reduction in risk in first class would outweigh any crash benefit.
Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. See all posts by Thomas Lumley »