Are aft-facing airplane seats safer?
They may well be. But don't look for them anytime soon.
- By Michael Klesius
- AirSpaceMag.com, October 26, 2009
Premium Aircraft Interiors Group
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That didn’t stop Bern Case from campaigning to change the standard. In the summer of 1987, Case was working at the Tri-City International Airport in Saginaw, Michigan (today he’s the airport manager for the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport in Oregon) when Northwest Flight 255 had a disastrous accident on its next stop after Saginaw. The MD-82 had barely taken off from Detroit when it stalled and crashed into the embankment of a freeway overpass, killing 155 passengers and crew members. Only four-year-old Cecilia Cichan survived.
As Case learned the details of the tragedy, he became convinced that rear-facing seats would have saved lives. Throughout the 1990s, he contacted agencies, companies, and airlines, pushing the idea of rear-facing seats. By the end of the decade, he’d given up. “These numerous studies are just ta-ta’d away with clichés,” he says today. “Airlines say passengers wouldn’t like to face backward. But military airplanes and corporate jets have them.” And, he adds, their passengers report no problems. When former president Bill Clinton came to Oregon during the 2008 presidential campaign, Case was invited to board his charter plane, and noted that Clinton had chosen a rear-facing seat.
“Another objection you hear is cost,” says Case. He thinks it’s a non-issue. “The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration ] doesn’t need to say, ‘Change your planes overnight.’ ”
In fact, the FAA doesn’t seem concerned about the matter one way or the other. “Basically, we set standards and the airlines decide how they want their airplanes built,” says Alison Duquette of the agency’s public affairs office. There might be some concern about passengers evacuating an airplane with rear-facing seats, she adds, although “There has been no definitive research on the subject that we’re aware of. [It’s] just a factor that has to be considered.”
According to David Castelveter of the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association, “There is no difference in the safety of commercial airliner seats—only differences in their weights. There can be a lot of back-and-forth on passenger preferences and reasons for them. Nonetheless, most [passengers] would give the nod to forward-facing.” But the association could not produce any surveys or studies supporting this contention, and does not have a policy on the safety of aft-facing seats. Nor does the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
So we asked a manufacturer. Sandy Angers of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ public relations office replied by email: “We are not familiar with any study or survey pertaining to passenger preference of aft-facing vs. forward-facing seats. Airlines traditionally conduct their own market research and may have that data.” As for which is safer, “Boeing does not have a position on whether aft-facing seats offer greater or less safety. All seats must meet regulatory safety standards.”
We weren’t able to find surveys of passenger preference for airplane seating, either. But Alison Trinkoff, a former doctoral student at Johns Hopkins and now a nurse at the University of Maryland, wrote a paper in the American Journal of Public Health in 1985 about preferences on the Washington, D.C., Metro subway system, which offers both forward- and aft-facing seats in every train car. She found that only 25 percent of adults chose aft-facing seats, while 66 percent of children chose them. Trinkoff concluded, “While many adults may prefer to ride facing forward, others might opt to face rearward if safety advantages were known and appropriate seating was made available.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, British Airways (then British European Airways) flew Tridents with half the seats facing backward, and the airline still has some aft-facing seats in business class. Two years ago, a U.K.-based company called the Premium Aircraft Interiors Group began promoting a design called the Freedom Seat for commercial wide bodies, in which every other seat in each row faces aft. The Freedom Seat is more about comfort and economy than safety, however—the shoulders of passengers in adjacent seats can intrude slightly into the space above the legs of passengers to their left and right if they face the opposite way. The configuration translates to an additional column of seats down the length of the economy class cabin of a wide body, and four inches added to the pitch, or the front-to-back spacing between seats. That means 21 more seats in the economy cabin of a Boeing 777 and 50 more in an Airbus A380. “Nobody’s taken us up on it yet,” says business development director Ben Bettell. “I think the main reason is the eye-to-eye contact.” British Airways has solved that problem in their business class cabin with dividers for privacy.