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Will that be an Aisle or Window Seat, Sir?

Image: Illustration by Gil Ahn
Diagram Courtesy of seatguru.com

As my many loyal readers have (ahem!) certainly noticed, this blog has been silent of late. The result of my having been caught in a cycle of endless peripatacity: back and forth across various sectors of the heavens. It hasn't necessarily made me any holier, but it has meant boarding a large number of planes, which, in turn, has meant that I have had to field the query that doubles as this entry's title, quite often.

Not necessarily a satisfactory trade-off, right?

And especially when I tell you the next thing: all those ticketing agents -- no matter how polite or cute or helpful they may have been -- were asking me the wrong damn question the whole time. And, making matters that much worse, I was giving them a wholly worthless answer in return.

Now, for those of you out there who have ridden a plane or two in your lifetime -- and, especially, for those of you planning on doing so in the future -- this matter may come of some interest. For, It turns out that there IS a really good and serviceable answer -- but only in response to the really good and serviceable question. But that isn't the question that normally gets asked. You know, the one that determines whether you get a chance to shoot photos of marshmallow-puffy clouds and rusty rooftops and the patchwork quilt of rotated farmlands receding through the weathered plexiglas versus the opportunity to slide untroubled from your seat and walk unimpeded to the john as often as you might care to, during your two, or five or nine hour flight.

So, what would that better, more important question be? (Well [cliffhangers!], for that you'll have to negotiate the jump . . .)

According to this piece in Popular Mechanics, when calculating mortality, the question ought not to be "would you like the window or aisle?" rather: "would you prefer fore or aft?" And then, unless one is suicidal or else has an itch to tempt fate, there can only be one possible answer: "the aft! Give me the aft."

As far aft, as possible, it appears.

Examining every commercial airline crash in the United States since 1971, the periodical assessed patterns in survival and mortality for 20 accidents, determining that:

  • in 11 of the 20 crashes rear passengers fared far better;

  • only 5 accidents favored those seated in the fore section;

  • 3 flights were tossups (that is, mortality was rather equally distributed); and

  • 1 flight outcome did not allow the determination of seat positions (which doesn't sound like a promising result no matter where passengers were located).

Whether coincidental or not, the best survival rates for those seated in front of the wing occurred during the five mishaps between 1988 and 1992. It seems since then, planes have done what we'd intuit them to: drop nose first. Meaning that, despite the longer wait for disembarkation, we may have finally stumbled upon the best rationalization for not doling out the extra fifteen hundred bucks for First Class. Instead of admitting what for most of us is the truth ("I can't afford it" or "I can't see springing for the extravagance"), we can simply be pragmatists (well, okay, self-loving pragmatists): "I'm simply maximizing the probability that I am going to survive this flight."

There's no shame in surviving, right?

One caveat:

Before you (or, more likely, your relatives) go and say "Todd told me (him/her) to head for the back" (which sort of sounds like a lawsuit waiting to be hatched), I have to observe that this sort of study is far from scientific. After all, it is based on a very small N spread over a rather long period of time (during which the product, laws governing flight and commerce, regulatory and maintenance procedures, etc., have likely changed). Moreover, and most obviously, it is predicated on comparison of different kinds of planes, of varying sizes, ages and maintenance schedules, flown by pilots of differing skill and experiential levels, packed to differing passenger and baggage densities, under differing weather conditions -- blah, blah. You understand the methodological drill, right?: sort of like holding up apples and bowling balls for inspection and assuming that uses and meanings and outcomes all fit into the same interpretive box.

But that said . . . and all things being equal . . .

it might be enough to induce a pause the next time a ticket agent looks you in the eye and says: "and would you like a window seat or aisle today?"

Actually . . . could you make that something in the aft? As far back as the seats go. I mean . . . assuming that I actually have to fly at all.





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