HL Deb 03 April 1996 vol 571 cc270-2

11.15 a.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name in the Order Paper and to declare an interest. I am president of the Air Safety Group.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made following the recommendation of the Civil Aviation Authority to extend the bulkhead width in a passenger carrying aircraft from 22 inches to 30 inches.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, following the accident at Manchester Airport in 1985, the Civil Aviation Authority commissioned a study into the effect of cabin configuration on aircraft evacuations. This study concluded, among other things, that the optimum width for passageways between floor to ceiling rigid structures, such as galleys, was 30 inches. The Joint Aviation Authorities have developed proposals based on this study and will be consulting on the proposals in the near future.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that most encouraging Answer. As regards the proposals and recommendations, has he any news as to when they can possibly become fact?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, as I said, we hope that the consultation will commence very shortly. I understand that it may be as soon as next month. We hope that it will be taken forward as quickly as possible. There will then be a process to be gone through, depending on the results that come forward, for formal proposals to be developed. It is possible that the rule-making process can begin perhaps in late 1997.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, can my noble friend give me some advice as to the measurements and what dimensions in the aircraft are referred to? I have to declare an interest as a frequent traveller between Edinburgh and London. I find that small is beautiful in climbing in and out of the seats. What exactly is the purpose of the extra eight inches? Will it give me more headroom or legroom?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not believe that it will affect my noble friend's physique in any way whatever. Where there are two rigid structures, such as a lavatory on one side and a galley on the other, or two galleys, or whatever, and there is a gap and a barrier which goes right from the floor to the ceiling the present minimum width is 22 inches. The study undertaken at Cranfield shows that the optimum width for that gap in order to evacuate people quickly from the aircraft is 30 inches. Any more than that and other problems of crowding arise.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this improvement is the result of the exercise by the Civil Aviation Authority of its very great experience in aviation matters?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, I can, my Lords. It stems from a recommendation from the Air Accident Investigation Branch which was taken up by the Civil Aviation Authority. It commissioned the Cranfield study, which was a long and serious study. The results have gained very considerable acceptance. The CAA has largely been the driving force behind this change.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not a very long time since the Manchester air accident from which these recommendations flow? I understand from the Minister that there is to be further very considerable delay. In view of what is an unsatisfactory situation—and I am in no way denigrating the Civil Aviation Authority, which is a very reliable organization—what other recommendations by that body flowing from the accident remain unimplemented?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, on the question of time, it is important that these things are done as quickly as possible. I understand that the Cranfield study into physical aspects did not report until 1989; so that was part of the delay. Since then the proposals have been referred to the JAA which we believe is the proper authority if we are to get as wide as possible harmonisation and acceptance of the proposals in order to make them worth while and workable. All that has taken time. We want the matter to be pursued as quickly as possible, and we are pushing hard through the Civil Aviation Authority.

Other recommendations were brought forward for consideration on, for example, cabin water-spray systems for aircraft, as recommended by the AIB. The CAA considered that recommendation but rejected it. The reasoning behind that is lengthy and could perhaps form the subject of another Question. A similar story prevails in relation to smokehoods, but floor lighting has been adopted.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, given the fact that the aircraft industry is, above all, international, are there automatic provisions to ensure that new requirements apply to all airlines and all aircraft manufacturers, or do they apply only to British ones?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is an important point. It is why the proposals have been taken forward through the Joint Aviation Authorities. That will mean that all members of the JAA adopt a harmonised standard. The other very big block, affecting a large part of the industry, is the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States. It is looking carefully at what the JAA are doing and there is good liaison between those two bodies.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, following the question from my neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, are there any regulations about the distance there between seats? I have been in aircraft where I found it impossible to get into the seat—and I would certainly have found it very difficult to get out. Can aircraft manufacturers pack as many people as will tolerate it into an aircraft or is there a limit?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the reasons for the noble Lord's difficulties could be numerous. But there are minimum regulations for airlines. Depending on which class of passenger they carry, they might make different commercial decisions. However, minimum standards are laid down and must be strictly adhered to.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind the international responsibilities of the Civil Aviation Authority, is it not strange that it has not converted to the metric system but continues to prefer inches?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I dare say that converting 22 inches and 30 inches into metric measures would be straightforward. Indeed, the conversion is probably concealed somewhere in my brief. However, for the purposes of presentation to your Lordships' House, I think that perhaps inches are preferable.