HC Deb 11 May 1959 vol 605 cc1009-18

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.4 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I wish tonight to draw attention, for reasons of safety, to the desirability of backward-facing seats in civil passenger air transport, and I do so despite the article in a Sunday newspaper that in the eyes of some people safety is a dirty word.

In railway trains for half a century we have had a 50 per cent. chance of sitting with our backs to the engine and it is generally recognised that in a minor railway crash having one's back to the engine is safer. One ought to have the same choice when going by air. Apart from one or two exceptional aircraft, not now on internal lines, one does not have such a choice. I have always believed that a backward-facing seat is indeed safer in anything except a major crash.

In the accident to a B.E.A. Dakota at Northolt on 17th October, 1950, when the plane struck beech trees at Mill Hill, all twenty-four passengers were killed. The court of investigation recommended then that backward-facing seats should be inserted and noted with approval that the Air Registration Board was making representations to the International Civil Aviation Organisation for their adoption.

That was eight years ago. Then there was the notorious accident to the Tudor aircraft in Wales when carrying football spectators from a match. That was an accident at low speed—only some 10 G—in which eighty-nine were killed. Half of them were scalped by striking their heads on the seats in front of them. I need not elaborate on further accidents, but I see in a paper by Sir Vernon Brown, late Chief Inspector of Accidents, to whom I am much indebted for my information today, that on 20th January, 1954, an R.A.F. Valetta crashed and of the crew of five all of whom were facing forward, one was killed and three seriously injured, but all eight passengers suffered only minor injury and all were in backward-facing seats. Two children aged 4 and 5 were saved, an important point with which I shall deal later.

Finally, I come to the Munich crash of the Elizabethan on 6th February, 1958, which was carrying the Manchester United football team. In that plane there were 18 backward-facing seats in front and 29 forward-facing seats in the rear. Twelve passengers, including a mother with her child on her lap, were in the backward-facing seats and all those twelve passengers were saved. Only two were seriously injured, but of the twenty-five passengers in the forward-facing seats nineteen were killed and two died later. The pilot, also in a forward-facing seat. was killed. I realise, of course, that this result of itself is not conclusive because it must be admitted that the back part of the plane disintegrated, but the fact is that all the passengers in the backward-facing seats survived the real shock when the plane first struck the ill-fated house at the end of the runway.

Although flying is relatively safe, 400 to 600 people are killed each year in air crashes. However excellent planes and pilots become, it is unfortunately almost certain that with increasing flying and the normal chances of error that figure is bound to increase. We have the lessons of road accidents and I need not draw the attention of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation to them. In the last forty years the accident figure year by year has never decreased. With larger planes holding 150 passengers the chances of being killed or injured in one take-off or landing crash are relatively greater. Therefore, every possible step to reduce accidents should now be taken. One of the major steps would be to introduce backward-facing seats in every civil plane.

I am obliged to an article in Aeronautics recently written by Squadron Leader D. I. Fryer, M. B., B. Sc., a member of the Institute of Aviation and Medicine, for showing why these seats are safer. First of all, in a backward-facing seat the back of the seat restrains the body wonderfully in a forward or downward crash, and the Civil Aviation Board's figures show that the majority of forces in crashes are forward and downward. In forward-facing seats in a crash, the body being restrained only by a belt, the head and shoulders jack-knife and crash into the seat in front and that action by itself can dislodge the seat in front and set off a chain reaction of seat movement in the aircraft. In any event, the restraint to the abdomen by a belt is itself dangerous in a crash, even if one does not hit the seat in front.

On the other hand, in a backward-facing seat the body is restrained by an area from the buttocks to the shoulders, including the back of the arms and the back of the head. The area of restraint is about 208 square inches on average. A 3-inch belt gives an area of restraint of only 60 square inches. In short, the backward-facing seat gives nearly four times the area of restraint of that given by a belt. When the fuselage slews round, as can happen, there is better provision against crashing against the side wall of the cabin by the friction between the body and the seat in a backward-facing seat.

It is said that the disadvantages of a belt can be overcome by using shoulder harness in addition to a belt, but I do not believe that that is practicable. First, it is very difficult to fit a shoulder harness to all types of people, fat and thin. Certainly one cannot very easily fit children, and particularly one cannot fit children in arms. We have seen the safety achieved for children in arms by backward-facing seats in previous accidents. Thirdly, there would be a good deal of passenger resistance to shoulder harness.

In my view, the easiest thing to do is to turn the seats round in an aircraft, which is a simple operation. Why is it not done? First, it is said that there is a certain amount of passenger opposition to this course. I do not believe that. I think it is nonsense. Most people do not think of this matter at all, but if they think about safety they realise that there is some danger in taking off because of the order to fasten their seat belts and the "No smoking" rule. Surely such people would be encouraged if they knew that the companies were taking every possible precaution for their safety.

The real reason for not adopting the backward-facing seats, I believe, is that such seats cost £1 or £2 more or involve 1 lb. or 2 lb. more in weight. That militates against the fullest possible return on the aircraft. My hon. Friend apparently says that that is not so. That leaves me with no reason that these seats should not be turned round. We ought not to permit any matter of 1 lb. or 2 lb. extra weight or a little extra cost to prevent us from adopting a beneficial safety measure.

Tonight I make two appeals. My first is to B.E.A. and B.O.A.C., through the Parliamentary Secretary, to give a bold lead on this question. I believe that it would pay them dividends in passenger receipts in the future. After all, one can see better out of the aeroplane window when looking away from the wing, backwards, than when looking forward. I believe that "back to the engine" would become a selling point with these aircraft companies.

In R.A.F. Transport Command, United States transport planes and charter companies working for the Government all seats are back to the engine. In an inquiry among R.A.F. transport passengers, 65 per cent. said that they preferred these seats, and the U.S.A.F. showed a similarly strong preference. What is done for the R.A.F. and Government personnel surely can and should be done for civilian passengers.

Mr. Paul Williams (Sunderland, South)

Is my hon. Friend making the same recommendation about cars?

Mr. Gresham Cooke

That might be a very sensible point. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to make that point if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.

I would finally also like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he has received any advice in his Department recently on this subject and, if so, whether he can tell us with what result. I say that the Ministry would be performing a very real service if it could make a fresh effort—I know that it has been done before—at the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is representative of all the interested countries, to agree that backward-facing seats should become standard practice within, perhaps, five years. The B.E.A., B.O.A.C., and the Ministry would be earning the gratitude of millions of passengers, and saving probably hundreds of lives in the future, if they would give a wholehearted lead in this matter.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Hay)

It is the Custom of most Ministers replying to a debate on the adjournment to thank the hon. Member for having raised his subject for discussion and I do not want to deviate from this precedent tonight. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) for two reasons. Firstly, it has given me, as one comparatively new to this matter, an opportunity of understanding what it is all about, since he has stated his case in some detail, and secondly It has enabled me to explain exactly why we feel at the moment that it is extremely difficult to comply with his suggestion.

For a number of years backward-facing seats have been advocated in passenger aircraft. The argument, put simply, is that, in the event of a crash from which people can reasonably be expected to survive, it is not sufficient to protect passengers from fatal injury. Something more is necessary. They have to be protected from the crash forces so that they do not become bemused or suffer injury to arms or legs, because if fire should break out as a result of the crash, they should be able to extricate themselves from the wreckage.

It is pointed out that in forward-facing seats when the impact is sustained the weight is thrown forward about the seat belt with the result that there is a serious risk that the head will hit the back of the seat in front. In the backward-facing seat, the passenger is pressed more firmly into the seat and that is why advocates of the backward-facing seat say it gives greater protection and more safety. If pressure is applied over the whole of the back and the head, the facility of the body to withstand the load is greater than if it is applied through the seat belt.

That is the one view but, to put the matter into perspective, there are a number of arguments against it. The first is comparatively small and simple. Backward-facing seats may be helpful if the aircraft is travelling in a given direction; but in a crash the aircraft may swing right round with the result that the backward-facing seat becomes exactly the opposite. Secondly, the direction and the duration and the extent of the pressure felt is not uniform in all cases. It is extremely difficult sometimes to find how the pressure has been applied in a crash.

There is a substantial lack of evidence to support the case in favour of backward-facing seats, and this is the major difficulty. The trouble is that the circum- stances of one crash and another vary considerably and there is great difficulty in obtaining reliable evidence as to what pressures have been applied to passengers, how they were applied, and for how long. The trouble is that no conclusive—I stress the word "conclusive"—deductions can be drawn. I will take the example which my hon. Friend gave, the Munich crash of the Elizabethan in February last year.

The aircraft contained 47 passenger seats in all, 18 of whom were in the front portion of the cabin and were backward-facing, the other 29 being in the after portion of the cabin and facing forward. It so happened that those who were sitting in the backward-facing seats in the front part of the aircraft all survived the crash, while those sitting in the after part of the aircraft in forward-facing seats were almost all killed. One might say that that is a good argument for backward-facing seats, but really it is quite inconclusive evidence because it so happened that this aircraft struck a building in the coures of its passage and it broke in two. The whole of the after portion of the aircraft containing the forward-facing seats was crushed, and almost everyone in that part was killed, as my hon. Friend said. It would not have made the slightest difference whether the seats were forward or backward-facing in that part of the aircraft because the whole of the fuselage was so impacted that almost everyone was killed. That is why I say that one cannot draw conclusive evidence from that crash.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Will not my hon. Friend agree that the people in the forward part facing backwards were all saved, despite the crash?

Mr. Hay

Yes. I should have added that the forward part of the aircraft careered on for some distance, but it was, in fact, virtually undamaged compared with the after part of the machine. If my hon. Friend looks at the accident report and the photographs, he will see what I mean. This emphasises our difficulty in assessing the evidence. It is really so scanty and inconclusive

Between 1954 and 1957, there have been nine major survivable accidents to British aircraft. Only five of the nine aircraft concerned contained forward-facing seats. All these five were obsolescent aircraft with seats stressed to lower strength factors than we are accustomed to now.

I have tried to outline very briefly the arguments for and against, and I now want to say that we are in the Ministry told by our advisers that, despite all this evidence one way and the other, the backward-facing seat probably does give an extra margin of safety in some circumstances. But I must make it clear that, in our view, the margin is very small at the moment, and it is likely to diminish still further as aircraft and their operation become safer.

It is this, it seems to me, which is really the answer. We must do all we can to make aircraft safer both in their construction and their operation, especially with regard to landing and take-off procedures. At the same time, we must not neglect—indeed, I think we should redouble our efforts in this direction—the need for the highest possible standards of training and the observance by aircrews of the regulations which are laid down. This is a digression, perhaps, and I now want to come to the next part of my remarks to the House.

My hon. Friend asked me whether we had had any advice recently on these matters. We have had the whole question reviewed by a working group quite recently, a group on which my Ministry, the Ministry of Supply and the Air Registration Board were all represented. The chairman was the head of the Air Safety Board. The setting up of the working group was announced by my predecessor on 18th June last year. The group has since conducted a very valuable study, hearing evidence from a large number of people and bodies, including the Flying Personnel Research Committee, which is a body under the Air Ministry, and also from Squadron Leader Fryer, whose article which my hon. Friend mentioned I have had the opportunity of reading with great interest.

As I say, having heard evidence from a large number of people, they came to certain conclusions which are, broadly speaking, those I have just outlined. Putting it very broadly, they think that there is a marginal case still in favour of the backward-facing seat, but it is quite marginal and is by no means so conclusive as some people would believe. That is the advice we have received, and I give it frankly and freely to the House.

However, there is one further point which strikes a somewhat hopeful note. At the moment, almost all aircraft that are being constructed incorporate forward-facing seats stressed to a higher degree than formerly. Since 1951, when a change was made in the Air Registration Board's requirements, all new aircraft receiving a certificate of airworthiness, and all other aircraft that are undergoing floor or seat modification must have the seats stressed to take a force of nine times that of gravity—in the jargon, 9G. Before 1951, the figure was 6G.

For example, all the Viscounts under British ownership have seats stressed to that strength. If I might refer to the Tudor air crash in Wales in 1950, to which my hon. Friend referred, that aircraft, I understand, had forward-facing seats throughout, but they were stressed to 6G only. As my hon. Friend said, a much heavier force than that was applied to that aircraft when it crashed. It was a distressing crash. The aircraft nose-dived almost vertically into the ground, and it would have been a great deal to expect that anyone should have survived in whatever position the seats were placed. But that, perhaps, is a matter for retrospective argument. Incidentally, the Ministry of Supply is about to undertake what is called dynamic testing to ensure that the 9G requirement is being met by the manufacturers in practice.

The next question, and perhaps the biggest question of all is; in the light of all this, why do not we in the Ministry make the fitting of backward-facing seats a mandatory requirement? Our present policy is that stated by my right hon. Friend in answer to a Parliamentary Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) on 8th April, 1957. If I may summarise that Answer, it was that British operators should not be required to install backward-facing seats so long as their international competitors are not bound to do so. They may do so if they wish. In fact, some British operators have done so, as hon. Members will be aware.

Why, in this matter, must we depend on international agreement? Here, I must explain that to fit a backward-facing seat involves the operator in an economic penalty. My hon. Friend mentioned this, but I should like to elaborate it a little more. In a backward-facing seat the centre of gravity of the body plus seat is higher than in the case of the forward-facing seat. With the backward-facing seat, the impact is taken up by the whole of the back and the head, whereas with the forward-facing seat it is concentrated low down by the seat belt.

That all means that we have to impose a higher load on the seat structure, on the attachments and on the floor of the aircraft, and this means that these things have to be both stronger and heavier. As soon as we start adding things to an aircraft which make it heavier we reduce the pay load. There are a number of other difficulties. There is, for example, the difficulty of modifying an aircraft equipped with forward-facing seats. If we turn them round, we are liable to find the windows and the bulkheads are in the most awkward possible places.

There is no doubt in the minds of the operators with whom we have to deal, and who have given very frank advice, that, despite what my hon. Friend says, the backward-facing seats are regarded as psychologically unattractive. A great many people do not like them, and whether we ourselves say yes or no that is a fact. We have tried on two occasions—the last time in 1956—to get the International Civil Aviation Organisation to adopt this proposition of backward-facing seats, but we have been defeated on each occasion. I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that we would be willing to see if we can try again, but, frankly, I would not want to hold out any high hopes on this. The information and advice I get is that there is very little hope of international agreement on this matter.

I will frankly and honestly say to the House what our view about it is. We think that commercial air transport is such a highly competitive business that it would be wrong to place even a small disadvantage on our airlines for what is a very marginal and diminishing safety aspect. I say at once that if there were clear and categorical evidence that safety were noticeably improved by backward-facing seats, then of course we would not hesitate for a moment. We would make them mandatory. But this is not the case, and so, after very careful thought, and on the clear advice of the working group to which I have referred, we have concluded that the policy must stand.

Mr. P. Williams

If what my hon. Friend says were true, surely the airlines themselves would be the first to jump at this chance?

Mr. Hay

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. I have not the slightest doubt that they would, because they are as much concerned about the safety of the people they carry as anyone else.

The final point which remains for me to deal with is that about the two Airways Corporations. My hon. Friend suggested we should ask the B.E.A.C. and B.O.A.C. to give a lead in this matter. As I have said, in the present international climate it will obviously be extremely difficult to get international agreement. On a matter which has been tried on a number of occasions before without any success, I do not really think that, with the best will in the world, I should be right in asking the Corporations against their better judgment to do this.

However, I hope some of the things I have been able to say to the House tonight will help to clear the air a little. I again welcome the opportunity I have had of saying something about this interesting but rather intractable problem. I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall keep it constantly under review. If and when any conclusive evidence about backward-facing seats emerges we shall be only too willing to look at the whole matter again, but at the moment, I am afraid, the policy laid down by my right hon. Friend a year ago must stand.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.