Only a few airlines have rearwards-facing seats in business class – BA and United are the most notable – but more than a few travellers dislike the notion of “flying backwards”.
However, putting personal preferences aside, is it any safer to fly facing the rear of the plane – in the opposite direction to travel – in the event of sudden deceleration?
Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine went for a deep dive into the topic and the answer is a definite ‘maybe’.
“People have been debating for at least half a century which way airplane seats should face – forward or backward” writes Air & Space/Smithsonian’s Michael Klesius.
The boffins appear to agree that backwards is better.
According to an article cited by Klesius in the December 1952 edition of Naval Aviation News, “passengers in Navy transport planes have ten-fold better chances of coming out of crashes alive, thanks to backward-facing seats which are being installed in all new planes.”
“Testing showed they gave passengers much more protection for the entire back, neck, head and parts of the arms and legs in sudden stoppages. The human body can absorb more shock by the back than by the chest and abdomen, flight surgeons say."
A more recent tome – this one in 1983, from research scientist Richard Snyder, who studied crash protection and transportation safety at the University of Michigan – found that “data appears to overwhelmingly substantiate that the seated occupant can tolerate much higher crash forces when oriented in the rearward-facing position.”
“The basis for providing aft-facing seating impact crash protection is substantial and supported by over half a century of experience” Snyder maintains.
Those inside the industry are more reserved.
A spokesman for the US Air Transport Association says “There is no difference in the safety of commercial airliner seats – only differences in their weights”.
Klesius also contacted Boeing, to hear back that “Boeing does not have a position on whether aft-facing seats offer greater or less safety. All seats must meet regulatory safety standards.”
If the topic piques your interest, head over to Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine.
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