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Is It Safer to Sit Backward on a Plane?

Every 20 years or so, often unfortunately following the crash of a commercial aircraft, the topic of reversing airplane seats to face the rear of the plane, uh, rears its head in the media. To wit, see Rear-facing aircraft seats ‘safer’ in the U.K.’s Telegraph. The newspaper explains that rear-facing seats “provide better support for the back, neck and head in the event of sudden deceleration.”

As one commenter on the article notes, this idea is not really news. Just ask parents in the U.S., where the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants face backward in car seats until at least age 2. The first serious research that resulted in recommendations for rear-facing seats was done in 1952.

The Telegraph makes a raft of good points about how airlines, many of which are focused on reducing costs almost to the point of obsession and even recklessness, are highly unlikely to take on the costs associated with reconfiguring their fleets with new seats, new television screens and windows in new positions, not to mention overhauling their seat assignment systems. Besides the initial sunk costs of trashing the old seats and purchasing and installing new ones, most available backward-facing seats are heavier than the ones currently in use, at a time when many airlines are trying to reduce aircraft weight to reduce fuel consumption.

The reason the seats weigh more is important; when passengers are facing backward, the seats have to absorb much more of the impact in the event of a crash, and so need stronger and heavier reinforcements where they are bolted to the floor.

If a bit of extra fuel seems like a minor sacrifice to make for massively increased safety, it’s informative to keep in mind how aggressive some airlines have been about weight reductions — including that of their staffers. Seriously, if Ryanair has gone so far as to cut the size of its in-flight magazines and stock less ice to reduce aircraft weight — not to mention asking flight crews to watch their weight — are they likely to put heavier seats on their planes?

I wonder also about the passenger comfort issues rear-facing seats might present, especially for those of us who are prone to motion sickness. Ever sit on a backward-facing train seat? I have, and it takes about five minutes before your brain starts sending signals to turn around — now. My recommendation: Don’t do it on a full stomach or after a pub crawl.

That said, there are plenty of first-class cabins on larger planes that alternate forward and rear-facing seats to allow for more room to recline, and for more first-class seats to be put on planes. (British Airways’ Club World, pictured above, is one example.) Readers, have any of you sat in these? What was it like?

All told, given the various forces of resistance to the idea outlined above, and the fact that this idea has been floated since the early 1950’s without becoming more widespread, it is probably a fair assumption that we won’t be staring at the back of the plane on takeoff — at least not anytime soon.

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