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

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

ByABC News
January 16, 2008, 7:59 PM

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."