London, England: For the best chance of getting out alive from a burning aircraft, passengers should choose an aisle seat near the front within five rows of an emergency exit, a new study has found.
The study, commissioned by the Civil Aviation Authority and carried out by Greenwich University in London, examined 105 accidents and accounts from 2,000 survivors of how they managed to escape from crash landings and onboard fires, reported the Times of London newspaper yesterday.
It found that the seats with the best survival rate were in the emergency exit row and the row in front or behind it.
Between two and five rows from the exit, passengers still have a better than even chance of escaping in a fire but the difference between surviving and perishing is greatly reduced, it said.
The most dangerous seats were those six or more rows from an exit where the chances of perishing far outweigh those of surviving, the study said.
Passengers sitting towards the front of the aircraft had a 65 per cent chance of escaping a fire, while the survival rate for those at the rear was 53 per cent. And, the survival rate in aisle seats was 64 per cent, compared with 58 per cent for other passengers.
Under international air safety regulations, aircraft must undergo a test to demonstrate that all those on board can escape within 90 seconds when half the exits are blocked.
But the study found that the evacuation test was flawed because it failed to take account of people's behaviour in an emergency and assumed that no one on board had any "social bonds" with other passengers.
In fact, analysis of behaviour in real emergencies showed that many passengers waited to help their friends or relatives.
Another flaw with the tests, the study found, was that people were much more willing to comply with directions from cabin crew under experimental conditions than in real danger.
In real emergency situations, where passengers may have a choice of directions in which to escape, they may ultimately ignore crew commands and attempt to use their nearest exit, the study pointed out.
It also said that the test should take into account the survival instinct of passengers, which could result in people climbing over seats to jump the queue for the exit, and delay evacuation.
Mr Robert Gifford, director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said the study shows your choice of seat on a plane really can be a matter of life or death. Your chance of survival should not be based on your ability to pay for an emergency exit seat or to reserve your seat online.
Mr Gifford said airlines should consider putting families and elderly people near the exits. They might not be allowed to sit in the exit row, however, because regulations require passengers in those seats to be fit enough to help to open the door.
A transport safety group said that the findings called into question the increasing trend among airlines to charge extra for exit seats, which have more legroom, or for passengers to select their seats online.
One of the accidents analysed in the study was the disaster at Manchester airport in 1985, when 55 people died on a British Airtours Boeing 737 after it caught fire. The majority of those who died were sitting well away from a usable exit.
The fire, caused by an exploding engine that punctured a fuel tank in the wing, engulfed one side of the aircraft and prevented escape from several exits.