Is it safer to fly in a backward-facing seat?

By David Flynn, September 3 2013
Is it safer to fly in a backward-facing seat?

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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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 May 2011

Total posts 732

No surprises, this kind of research has been done with regards to train travel as well and it is proven that when facing backwards sitting in a train your chances on sustaining injury after a crash is much less (same with road travel). Specifically injury related to the spine and neck, as the seat protects the impact. Mind you, this is because it is most likely that you have a full frontal impact. I guess in air travel it is somewhat different from train travel as during air travel you are in a 3 dimensional arena.

16 Dec 2011

Total posts 49

As long as the Pilot is facing forward..

Qantas - QFF Platinum

20 Mar 2012

Total posts 211

Hate sitting backwards on BA

10 Aug 2013

Total posts 29

Don't fly BA? 

There are plenty of good J classes out there...

Qantas - QFF Platinum

20 Mar 2012

Total posts 211

Hard to avoid if you're on a oneworld RTW for the  JFK/LHR sectors... The other option is AA which is ghastly

10 Aug 2013

Total posts 29

I suppose your right about that, but whats happening lately with their CX like 777-300ER? Does it only do the the LHR/LAX run?


22 Oct 2012

Total posts 317

I'm easily convinced that sitting towards the rear is far safer in a sudden deceleration, so long as there is nothing in the plane that will come forward and smash into your body at high speed.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jul 2012

Total posts 43

Perhaps, but you're behind all of the fuel. If you do Contolled Flight Into Terrain, you're pretty screwed no matter where, but hard take offs/landings-give me the front any day.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

30 Aug 2013

Total posts 9

I know that It is safer but I just feel very awkward when I sit that way mainly because I love abit of the rush when you take off. That is the reason I don't like flying British Airways or United Business class.

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