An increasing number of airline passengers are requesting seats in the rear of planes after two recent airplane crashes in which most of the survivors were seated in the tail sections.
"I seated myself in the back of the plane," said Larry Boggs of Arlington, referring to his flight into National Airport Tuesday from Toronto. Boggs said that even though he is a nonsmoker, he felt compelled to sit in the rear of the plane, which is the section traditionally reserved for cigarette smokers, on his Tuesday flight.
Boggs added that he also chose to sit in the back during his frequent business-related flights for a time after the 1982 Air Florida crash in Washington, in which a few passengers seated in the rear survived.
Most of the 30 survivors of the Aug. 2 Delta Air Lines crash at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, in which 134 died, were seated in the jet's tail section, and the four survivors of Monday's crash of a Japan Air Lines jet near Tokyo, which killed 520, were also seated in the rear of the plane.
"When I got my ticket, I hoped my seat would be toward the rear of the plane. Of course it wasn't," said Rosie Garcia of Tucson, who flew into Washington for a national Roman Catholic conference, the organizers of which made Garcia's seating arrangements.
Garcia said she will ask for a seat in the rear on future flights.
"I always sit in the back because it's safer in case of an accident," said Donzaleigh Abernathy, who flew into National Airport from Atlanta.
Safety officials, however, say that the efforts of many passengers to sit in the back of planes may not be worth the trouble since that area is not necessarily safer.
That viewpoint doesn't seem to hold much water with air travelers these days, though.
Charles Lindbeck, a supervisor for New York Air at National said he has seen requests for seats in the rear jump about 20 to 30 percent since the Delta crash. Before that, "people never really asked about seats in the rear."
On Northwest Orient Airlines flights out of National Airport, the number of rows in the nonsmoking sections regularly have to be increased to accommodate passenger seating preferences. But Northwest ticket agent Debbi Spiegel said that on four or five flights in recent days the smoking sections have had to be expanded.
"It could happen tomorrow that everyone in the front could survive a plane crash , and then everyone would request the front," said Spiegel, who said that she thinks requests for rear seats have risen about 10 percent since the Delta crash. Spiegel said that, "We've been telling a lot of people" that it is not necessarily safer to sit in the tail section.
Agents for Western, Delta, Eastern and Pan Am also said that requests for seats in the rear have increased since the Delta crash.
Safety officials and organizations associated with the air travel industry say that it is impossible to predict where the safest plane seats will be in a crash because of variables including the type of plane involved and the crash conditions.
"We have not reached any conclusions on where you should sit in an airplane to survive the impact," said Ira Furman, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Furman explained that post-crash fire is the most life-threatening element for those who survive a crash impact, and because some planes (including the DC10, L1011 and 727) have engines in the tail section, fuel lines running from the fuel storage in the wings to those engines pose a potential fire danger.
"An incredible quirk" saved the survivors of Delta Flight 191, according to Furman, who said that the tail section, which did not catch fire, happened to break off because the plane hit two water towers.
"Because of the complete unpredictability of a crash, you might as well flip a coin to choose seating ," said Thomas Tripp of the Air Transport Association, which says its members include most of the major commercial airlines.
"In some accidents the rear is safer, and in some accidents the front is safer," said Daniel Johnson, the author of "Just in Case," a book about airplane safety. Johnson added that the only agreed upon 'safest place' to sit is near an exit.
"It's like predicting the stock market -- if you knew in advance, you'd win all the time," said Johnson.