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In-Flight Experience

How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life

Those of us stuck in coach on every flight now have a silver lining to console us as we wedge ourselves into those cramped seats: we may be more likely than first-class passengers to survive a plane crash.

This was the primary takeaway from a recent safety study in which scientists crashed a Boeing 727 into a desert in Mexico, reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “During the $1.5 million experiment — which was arranged by Channel 4 and television production company Dragonfly — the first 11 rows of seats ripped out as the nose of the plane dipped and the front of the fuselage sheared off,” says the Daily Mail.

Because the front rows are where first-class passengers are normally seated, the scientists noted that no one in the more expensive cabin would have survived the crash. However, 78 percent of the remaining passengers would have survived — and the farther back in the plane they were, the better their chances.

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The study also found that the “brace” position, in which passengers prepare for impact by bending forward to touch their heads to the seats in front, does offer meaningful protection in the event of a crash. The scientists included dummies in three positions during the experiment: one in the brace position and wearing a seatbelt, one sitting upright with a seatbelt fastened, and one not wearing a seatbelt. According to the Daily Mail, “The dummy in the brace position would have survived the impact, the one not in the brace would have suffered serious head injuries, and the dummy not wearing a [seatbelt] would have perished.”

While the success of the brace position has been corroborated by multiple researchers, the equation of “back of the plane = safer” is not quite as conclusive. One study by Popular Mechanics supports the idea that the rear of the plane is safer, while a British Civil Aviation Authority/Greenwich University study found that passengers near the front of the plane were more likely to escape a crash-induced fire. Boeing’s own Web site simply says, “One seat is as safe as another, especially if you stay buckled up.” Survival rates vary widely depending on the circumstances of each crash.

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So what’s a safety-minded traveler to do? Being in or near an exit row is generally a good idea, and fliers sitting in the aisle seats may be more easily able to escape than those who are in less accessible window seats. Wherever you’re sitting, read the safety card, know the location of your nearest exit, keep your seatbelt fastened and follow all crew instructions in the event of an emergency.

Would this study make you think twice about upgrading to first class?

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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