Flying Forward, Facing Backward: How Does Seat Configuration Affect Passengers?

Jun 16, 2019

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While the concept of flight has evolved to become a very normal element of everyday life for some, for many it’s still an extraordinary activity. The unique thing about an airline jet is the way in which it becomes a temporary home to multiple nationalities, many possessing different beliefs, with different stories to tell, experiences in life and each with their own reasons for being on board a flight connecting A to B. It’s easy to assume that in our connected world, ‘everybody flies’ — but it’s simply not the case.

Each airline is often catering to a specific market, business model or passenger demographic. But, it’s not out of the ordinary for a Chilean passenger to board a domestic flight in Kazakhstan, and nor would it be odd for an Icelandic passport holder to be a commuter each day on the Melbourne to Sydney flight.

Knowing this, airlines have to continuously keep in mind that they’re serving citizens of the globe, not just their home market. There are several decisions both operators and manufacturers make to cater for all, such as how you will not find a ‘Row 13’ on Lufthansa, easyJet and others, so as to not unease superstitious travelers.

One of those concepts comes in the form of rear-facing seats, which challenges a large demographic. You’ll find rear-facing seats in premium cabins on a variety of major airlines today, including British Airways, which first introduced rear-facing Club World seats over a decade ago, Qatar Airways’ Qsuite, United’s first lie-flat seat and more.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)

When British Airways introduced its ying-yang Club World seats featuring several rear-facing seats, the airline claimed that passengers would have a new ability to socialize ‘facing your travel companion’. The airline wasn’t certain on how it would be received, but as with so many other areas of aviation, passengers were fast to adapt, and it’s quickly become the norm.

In terms of any safety implications, several studies have confirmed that, during an emergency landing, a backwards-facing seat provides more support for the head, neck and back. In the unlikely event of a hard impact, the passenger’s center of gravity would be higher and the seat would be taking more of the strain.

However, while there are clearly several positives to flying forward, facing backward, it’s not for everyone. In fact, the very concept is somewhat alienating for a significant number of passengers.

Many passengers in Asia believe flying facing backward is unnatural and against the force of nature. It links with the beliefs of feng shui laws, which claim to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. In a large part of Asia (and also in several other parts of the world) hotels, properties, homes and workplaces are designed to ensure the natural flow of energy.

Facing rearward — even when flying — is perceived as a position that is inherently bad for energy flow. It is contrary to good feng shui, which could lead to a decline in work productivity, problems with general happiness and even health ailments.

Are airlines being affected by such beliefs? In January 2019, Seoul, South Korea became the latest Qatar Airways route to feature its Boeing 777-300ER Qsuite product. All seats that are flush against the window, as well as the center-double suites are rear-facing.

Shortly after the launch, multiple passengers found themselves in a rear-facing Qsuite and insisted they must be moved to a forward-facing suite. One passenger told me on board a flight from Seoul to Doha that flying backward “is not what we do, it’s just wrong.” At the airline’s check-in counter in Seoul, large diagrams clearly highlight “BACKWARD FACING” with red exclamation mark annotations.

Fast forward to today, and the Qsuite-equipped Boeing 777-300ER no longer operates to the South Korean capital. Instead, the previous generation, all-forward-facing cabin does the job.

While some avoid facing rearward on a plane for energy flow reasons, others believe it brings on motion sickness. Having flown facing rearward more than 200 times, it’s fair to point out that you are most aware of the direction you are facing during taxi, takeoff and during deceleration upon touchdown. Once you’re up in the air, though, I find it difficult to notice — and henceforth, nausea sufferers should still feel comfortable facing against the direction of travel.

Have you flown facing rearward? How does it affect you?

Featured photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy.

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