HC Deb 02 July 2003 vol 408 cc385-6 12.31 pm
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place a responsibility on airlines for the health, welfare and well-being of their passengers; in that connection, to amend the Carriage by Air Act 1961; and for connected purposes. Hon. Members may be surprised that such a Bill is being proposed at all. It would place a duty of care on airlines that use British airports and are registered in the United Kingdom for the health and welfare of their passengers. Surely airlines, just like any other business that provides a service for its customers, including other passenger carriers—coach companies or trains—have an automatic duty of care in common law for the health and welfare of their customers and passengers. But you might be surprised to hear, Mr. Speaker, that that is not the case. Uniquely, the world's airlines have no responsibility whatsoever for the health of their passengers. The airlines' liability is governed by a 75-year-old convention, the Warsaw convention of 1929, article 17 of which limits the liability of airlines purely to the safety of their passengers; they are in no way responsible for their health.

At the time, the reason for that was understandable. In 1929, flying was a novel and pretty dangerous activity. Not many people did it and there certainly were not many paying passengers. Indeed, we were still flying biplanes and there was no such thing as pressurised cabins. The international community reached an agreement—a settlement—in which they decided, on the one hand, to limit the liability in damages for the death or injury of passengers and, on the other, to have no-fault compensation. That was perfectly rational, perfectly logical and perfectly reasonable in 1929. In 2003—in the 21st century—it is ludicrous that airlines have a responsibility for the safety of their passengers, but not for their health.

Air travel is the fastest growing mode of public transport in the world. It happens to be, believe it or not, one of the safest modes of transport in the world. Unfortunately, there is now a wide body of evidence to suggest that it is an extremely dangerous and unhealthy mode of travel, but the airlines have no responsibility for our health.

I am sure that the general public, including those on the 60 million flights abroad that Britons take in any one year, are not aware that when they step on an aeroplane their health is not protected in any way. But can one imagine a more controlled environment than an aircraft cabin? Where and how we sit is controlled; what we can do is, quite rightly, controlled; what we eat and drink is controlled; and even the very air that we breathe is controlled. But the airlines have no responsibility whatsoever for our health. That is an absurd and outrageous anomaly, and it is about time that the House addressed it.

At this moment, the victims of deep vein thrombosis and their families are fighting a case in the Court of Appeal. I have taken advice on this matter, Mr. Speaker. Those poor people are trying to argue that a thrombosis caused by long-haul travel is an accident, as defined by the 1929 convention. They cannot go into court and simply argue that their relatives, who include my 29-year-old constituent, John Anthony Thomas, were killed by the airlines. Because of that limited liability, they will not have their day in court. Many people will be extremely surprised to hear that.

Last month, in Cardiff county court, Judge Graham Jones ruled that the victims of the Girona air crash, who have suffered considerable psychological damage, can sue the holiday company, Thomson, precisely because he knew that, under the antiquated convention, they cannot sue the carriers, Britannia Airways. The situation is absurd and it needs to change. The travelling public have a right to be protected, and the House should lead the world in giving airline passengers that right by supporting the Bill.

The Bill will place a duty on airlines to protect the health of their passengers. One could still have to go to court and prove that one's life had been endangered. We in the DVT campaign believe that at least one in 40 of all passengers travelling for over four hours develops a clot in a deep vein which can seriously damage their health and may even be fatal. If we are right, a huge number of people are affected. We wait for science to prove how many people are being killed by that dreadful condition and to identify the exact causal relationship between air travel and DVT, but there is not a serious clinician in the world who does not agree that there is a link between long-haul air travel and the incidence of DVT.

This is an important Bill, and it is an honour for me to present it to the House. I do it in the name of my constituent, John Anthony Thomas, and all those who have died in the past two years from DVT as a direct result of an international long-haul flight. I do it for the families who are suffering terribly—the Christoffersons, the Browns, the Thomases and the Lambs. I could go on. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Smith, Mr. Paul Tyler, Bob Spink, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. David Kidney, Dr. Richard Taylor, Dr. Ian Gibson, Dr. Ashok Kumar, Mr. David Hinchliffe and Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody.

  1. AVIATION HEALTH 63 words