The Front of the Plane Is Safer: Travel Myth or Fact?

20/20 finds out whether or not your seat assignment determines your safety.


Jan. 17, 2008 — -- Last year was one of the safest on record for air travel, but when an accident happens, such as today's British Airways crash landing at Heathrow Airport near London, it touches a nerve among fearful fliers.

Many believe that where they sit on the plane could be the difference between life and death.

One flier told "20/20" that "if there's a chance to survive, I think you'll survive in the back."

Another flier said, "The back of anything would be better than being in the front because the people in the front get it first."

But it is really true that some seats are safer than others?

"I've heard this myth so many times and there's just nothing to support it," said Nora Marshall of the National Transportation Safety Board. She has spent 24 years investigating plane crash survivability at the NTSB.

Marshall said there's no clear pattern when it comes to plane crashes. She points to the 1989 United Airlines crash in Sioux City, Iowa, where fatalities were in the back and the front of the plane. When a Delta Air Lines jet crashed in Dallas in 1988 most of the fatalities were in the back. And in the 1991 USAir crash at the Los Angeles International Airport, most of the people who died were sitting in front.

"Every accident is so different that the circumstances of the accident are different," Marshall said. "There is no way to say which is the safest part of the airplane."

Aviation analyst and ABC News consultant John Nance agrees the notion of a "safer" part of the plane is a myth.

"We've got as many people who've gotten out of a front section of a jetliner as they have gotten out of the rear section," he said. "The best place, if there is a best place, would probably be next to the emergency exit, but even that isn't proven out."

Both Nance and Marshall say it's silly to even worry about the safest place to sit because flying is so safe.

"Out of the last six years, we have had one single solitary accident in which passengers died in the United States," Nance said. "That's phenomenal because we're launching millions of people every year. So there is so little risk involved in commercial airlines that it really is silly to be concerned about, where am I going to sit."

And where does he sit when he flies? "Any place they put me, actually … it really makes no difference to me except insofar as how long it's going to take me to get off the airplane when we get to the gate."

And here's another myth: "If the plane crashes, seating doesn't matter, because it's a plane crash! Everyone's going to die."

It's easy to believe that when images of fatal plane crashes — such as TWA 800, which crashed off the coast of Long Island in 1996 killing all aboard, and the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades — catch media attention.

More recently, when an Air France jet crashed in Canada two years ago and caught fire, all 309 people on board survived.

Many in the media called it the "Toronto Miracle." But was it really a miracle? Nance and Marshall said it wasn't a miracle at all.

"Even in the accidents that involve fire and major structural damage and, and include injuries, we still see that more people survive than are killed in the accident," Marshall said. She and her colleagues at the NTSB issued a report that found that in most plane accidents in the United States, the majority of passengers on board survive.

"Yes, there are some unsurvivable types of accidents … but when we're talking about a takeoff or landing accident, we have come so far in the past 30 years on putting fire-blocking materials in, and certainly training ourselves and our flight attendants so much better in being able to get everybody off an airplane that the Toronto accident of Air France is a perfect example of how an otherwise unsurvivable accident 30 or 40 years ago becomes imminently survivable," Nance said.

But the bigger point is that just about all this strategizing about crashes is based on myths, because flying is so safe.

"The reality is that on a plane the level of safety is greater than in other forms of transportation. Quite frankly, you're safer on an airliner than at home in your bathroom," said Nance.

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