A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Bumpy Ride

It’s really bumpy back here. Or is it?

One of the more common suggestions given to people who are worried about flying is to select a seat near the middle of the aircraft, over the wings, because that will usually be the smoothest place if a flight encounters turbulence. But is this really true? Sure there is anecdotal evidence that the middle seats are the smoothest. But anecdotes are not facts. Or are they?

First of all you have to consider the source(s) of the data. Here are some rather interesting observations by some people who certainly do fly a lot, some flight attendants and pilots: CabinCrew

1) “During turbulence, there’s such a difference between the front and the back of the aircraft that I’ve had to call a few pilots to let them know they needed to turn the seat belt sign on. We’re rocking and rolling in the back, liquids spilling all over the place, and the pilots sometimes have no idea.” [Heather Poole, “Cruising Attitude”, page 192]

2) “The smoothest place to sit is often over or near the wing. The bumpiest place to sit is in the back. A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much.” –pilot Patrick Smith, Quoted on Sassy-Stew website at your-pilot-wont-tell-you

3) International Air Transport Association : “The level of turbulence expected may be more intense especially in the aft section of the aircraft.” turbulence_management

4) “The difference can be so great that the pilots sometimes don’t realize that we are strapped into our jumpseats in back, as they are having a much smoother flight in the cockpit” Flight attendant Amanda Pleva in a Flyertalk article frightened_flyer

5) “The roughest spot is usually the far aft—the rearmost rows closest to the tail.” Trust Pilot

Even the airplane manufacturers (who never agree about anything) also agree about this!

6) From Airbus: “On large aircraft, it is possible that the forward section of the aircraft will experience less turbulence than the aft section of the aircraft. Therefore, the flight crew may not be aware of the level of turbulence experienced in the aft section of the cabin.” AirbusSafetyLib

7) From Boeing’s chief pilot (David Carbaugh): “It should be noted that flight crews may not sense vibrations in some areas of the airplane, (…) although passengers or other members of the crew usually feel and report such vibrations” Boeing_vibration

Yet there are those who insist that this is not true. I recently got engaged in a conversation with a pilot who has 17,000 hrs of flight experience, which is way more than my 6,000 hours as a passenger. I said that sometimes turbulence can be bad in the back, but not on the flight deck. Here is how that conversation went, and (fair warning) this is a pilot whose head is so big that he can even see what is happening in a coffee cup 100 ft behind him…


Him: It’s not the new F/As, rather it’s the 10+ year F/As who insist on calling the cockpit to tell us it’s bumpy. Why is that?

Me: You probably know this, but lots of times it is a LOT rougher in the aft galley than it is on the flight deck…. Just saying.

Him: As long as we’re on the phone w/ F/As, we can’t coordinate an altitude change w/ATC. Which is the only way out of chop.

Me: I’ve been on flights where FAs in the back had to tell the pilots. They had no idea… It happens.

Him: Uh, no. We know what’s going on with the ride and take action accordingly. No way they “didn’t know.”

Me: I know this, the tail does not ride the same as the flight deck

Him: I still say it’s obvious on both ends of the jet

Me: There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Him: Words, words, words

Me: I might (?) have more hrs in an aft galley on TransAtl/TransPac than you, and FA’s would trump us both! But yes, it happens.

Him: Ah yes, a new twist on the “I have as many hours on these as you” myth, only the galley version. If you do, you’re in the way.

Me: I am sure you have many more air hrs. But perception and experience are different depending upon where you sit. ’nuff said.

Him: I’m hampered by 17,000 pilot hours; we really learn about our jet thru pax “enlightening” us–who knew chop was worse in back?

Me: Sometimes, rarely, but it happens. Glad I could help… chuckle


OK, so even some pilots (in this case a rather snarky one with 17,000 hrs) don’t know or don’t realize how much rougher the ride can be in the back. But I am sure, and I know there are many FA’s, other passengers (and Airbus and Boeing) who agree with me. Here it is: Sit in the middle of the plane if you want a smoother ride, and not in the tail.

You may have to pay a few extra $$ for these seats, but if turbulence really bothers you, then just do it.


Update Jan 2016, 3FA’s and 4 Pax on AmericanAir #206 from Miami to Milan were injured, seriously enough that the plane had to divert to St John’s Nefoundland. In the story from Canadian Broadcast Co: “All the injured people were at the back of the plane.”AA 206 Oh, and none of the 4 injured pax were wearing their seatbelts, even though the seatbelt sign was lit. (= dumb fools)

Update Sept 2016 added Quote #4 from a published online article in FlyerTalk

10 comments on “Bumpy Ride

  1. Pete
    April 18, 2014

    Sitting up front as a pilot you know you have control so turbulence always seems less.


    • jlroehr
      April 18, 2014

      Even in a car, the passenger in the front seat feels the bumps more than the driver. Probably(?) because part of the driver’s mind is focused on driving…


  2. capnaux
    April 18, 2014

    Funny stuff, JR! I can fully imagine you had a 17,000 hour pilot with an ego so big his head wouldn’t fit in the interview seat! OK, let me trump him with an additional 5,000 or so hours:

    We KNOW when it’s bumpy; when it’s smooth, it’s smooth for everybody. Bumpy, same thing. We just often don’t realize how much MORE bumpy it is in back.

    Also, “bumpy” is in the mind of the beholder. My personal rule: if the Cap’ns coffee spills…it’s MODERATE turbulence! 😉


  3. Karlene
    April 22, 2014

    JR, love this! And I hope you rolled your eyes at the 17000 hour pilot. Yes, I agree with Eric… we know. We just know how much different. But this has opened my eyes as we had a bit of turbulence last flight and I forgot that our aft passengers would feel it worse. I also tend to agree with Airbus on the forward part of the cabin…
    Oh wait! That would be first class. Perhaps the free drinks up there make those bumps less noticeable. Seriously… forward is good for diminishing the feeling of chop. Mid wing might be the best, unless you look out the window. Wing flex can be a scary thing. Don’t look! Oh, that might only be on the 787. 😉


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  7. Jenn Grahams
    April 29, 2015

    Oh, man. I’m glad some sensible pilots already commented on that character’s comments! There is a HUGE difference between the front and the back! You figure that out quickly as a flight attendant. I specifically bid for First Class BECAUSE I can’t stand how bumpy it gets in the back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jlroehr
      April 30, 2015

      I think most of us agree.

      But another pilot has pointed out that on the MD80 the flight deck is further away from the COG than the last row of pax seats. He thinks that might be the only commercial jet where the cockpit could actually have a rougher ride in turbulence than the aft seats.


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