Are aft-facing airplane seats safer?

They may well be. But don’t look for them anytime soon.

The U.K.-based Premium Aircraft Interiors Group offers rear-facing seats strictly for economic reasons, and makes no claims about safety. Premium Aircraft Interiors Group

Katherine Cooper of Xenia, Ohio wonders why the seats in military aircraft face the back of the plane. “It is my understanding that seats are placed in this position for safety,” she writes. “I was under the impression this would protect passengers in case of an aircraft emergency like a sudden deceleration on the ground. Is this so? And if so, why is it that commercial airlines continue to put the seats facing forward?”

People have been debating for at least half a century which way airplane seats should face—forward or backward. According to an article 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….The Navy has decided to install the seats after five years of development and 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.” The unsigned article cites two Royal Air Force accidents involving a four-engine Hastings and a two-engine Valetta. Both had rear-facing seats that were credited with minimizing injuries to passengers.

Aft-facing seats were used in Britain and the U.S. as early as 1945, according to the article, but “it took time to prove their advantages justifying the added cost of converting the seats….Navy passengers seem to like the rearward-facing seats. BUAER [the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics] distributed questionnaires to passengers during first months of experimentation with them. More than 500 were questioned after a flight, with only a few voting against them and none advancing a convincing reason for their opinions.”

Not long afterward, Britain’s Flight magazine ran an editorial in its July 16, 1954, issue praising a talk by one G./C. A.C. Dudgeon, D.F.C., of Britain’s Transport Command. “It was an informative, persuasive and entertaining talk, and it put the advantages of the aft-facing seat into very clear perspective—no wild claims, no concentration on one aspect of survival to the exclusion of all others. Subsequently a very lively discussion developed and someone called for a show of hands. I was surprised to see that four-fifths of a reasonably well-informed audience (consisting of members and guests of Aviation Forum) were in favour of the rearward-facing seat for all civil transport aircraft.”

Dudgeon was an early crusader for aft-facing seats, citing research dating back to 1942. The Flight editorial dismissed as “fatuous” the airlines’ worry that passengers would view aft-facing seats as an admission that accidents were possible. “One might carry this argument further,” wrote Flight’s editors, “and advocate the abolition of lifejackets and instructions on how to wear them.”

The same magazine revisited the subject in 1964 with another editorial, “Rearward-facing Seats NOW?,” that  provided more technical detail. The center of gravity of a decelerating person is six to nine inches higher when facing aft than when facing forward due to the placement of the seatbelt, according to the article. Because the force of impact would be applied higher on the seat, airlines would have to strengthen the seat’s attachment to the floor. This, the editorial acknowledged, would add weight, and would translate to fewer passengers or the need to carry more fuel. “At present, with airlines losing money almost everywhere, it is only too easy to understand their antipathy for this subject,” say the editors. Yet they also cite a 1958 accident involving an airliner in Munich, Germany, which crashed on takeoff with the Manchester United soccer team on board. Those in forward-facing seats were killed, and those in aft-facing seats were saved.

In 1983, Richard Snyder, a research scientist studying crash protection and transportation safety at the University of Michigan, published a paper titled “Impact Protection in Air Transport Passenger Seat Design.” Snyder wrote, “Data appear to overwhelmingly substantiate that the seated occupant can tolerate much higher crash forces when oriented in the rearward-facing position.” He concluded that aft-facing seats were safer, and still holds to that view today. Now retired from teaching, he replied by email from his home in Arizona, “The basis for providing aft-facing seating impact crash protection is substantial and supported by over half a century of experience.”

Despite the research, we all face forward. Car companies, including super-safety-conscious Volvo, aren’t planning to turn passenger seats around anytime soon, and newborns are the only ones who face aft in automobiles. Most train and bus seats face forward. Airplanes just follow conventional practice.

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.

Bettell says that because airplane seats have been facing the same direction for 50 years, airlines may find it hard to adopt radically new seating ideas. He’s hopeful that this will change, and says that one U.S. airline, whom he declines to name, is interested in the company’s aft-facing seats.

As for whether passengers sitting in those seats would be safer, Bettell declines to comment, promising only that the seats will be manufactured to all necessary safety standards.

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