Airliners (Safety)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 12:10 pm on 22 May 1981.

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Photo of Mr Michael McNair-Wilson Mr Michael McNair-Wilson , Newbury 12:10, 22 May 1981

I am grateful for the chance to raise the subject of safety standards in airliners. Before I turn to the main burden of my speech, perhaps I should declare an interest, to the extent that I am deputy chairman of the all-party air safety group.

This year, as in so many other years, many millions of our fellow countrymen and many Members of the House will fly in airliners on business, on parliamentary work, or perhaps just on holiday, making their way to the resort of their choice. They will board their aircraft and fasten their seat belts, knowing that their duty-free liquor is under their seats—or perhaps, if the steward is not looking, in the locker above their heads—and they will assume that, apart from the very unlikely event of the aircraft being involved in a crash, they will reach their destination safely a few hours later.

It says much for the overall safety of civil aviation today that in most of our minds the thought of a crash will be a very remote possibility. Perhaps, immediately after take-off, when the light comes up to tell us to unfasten our seat belts, we shall relax into our seats without a further thought of what may befall us. Indeed, the figure of three fatalities per 1 million passengers boarded emphasises how safe flying has become.

Yet if flying, by and large, is as safe as I have indicated, and if the accidents that we worry about are those rare tragedies in which the aircraft crashes and there are no survivors, that does not mean there are not a number of accidents of a less dramatic kind in which there are fatalities and serious injuries. In discussing safety standards in airliners it is about those accidents and casualties that I wish to speak.

Frankly, I do not believe that the Civil Aviation Authority, which governs the regulations and safety standards of our airliners, insists upon the highest safety measures that could be achieved. I say that because although, as I have stressed, the number of fatalities is still small, accidents happen and people are injured. As we move towards ever-larger aircraft, such as the 650-seater super—jumbo, an aircraft accident—whether of the total disaster nature or something smaller—is likely to produce a greater number of casualties unless we take safety rather more seriously, in the terms to which I shall refer.

Most of us imagine that the integrity of the aeroplane and the engines are the governing safety factors in an aircraft. In fact, as the Cranfield Institute of Technology pointed out in a study in 1976, although over the past 20 years airliners have become larger and stronger, with more efficient engines using safer aviation fuel, the accident survival rate has not altered even in those crashes in which there could have been a high presumption of survivability.

Between 1969 and 1978 there were 16 survivable crashes, in which 419 people died. But on 19 August 1980, 301 people, including the crew, died as a result of a cabin fire in a Saudi-Arabian Lockheed Tristar at Riyadh airport. That was a survivable accident, but there were no survivors. When the cabin fire was first reported, the aircraft was 50 miles from Riyadh. It was able to return to the airport, make an absolutely safe landing, and taxi to a halt. Yet nobody got out of the aeroplane. Everybody was killed. I shall return to the source of that accident later, but it emphasises as well as I know how the point that I seek to make to my hon. Friend, namely, that what should have been a survivable accident, in which most if not at all of the passengers and crew should have been evacuated safely, ended with everybody being killed.

Apart from fire, there are many kinds of aircraft accident that come into the category of survivability. There is the aborted take-off, the overshoot of the runway, or even the aircraft that suddenly finds itself in turbulent weather conditions. In fact, 75 per cent. of accidents occur within three kilometres of the runway, and 71 per cent. of deaths in air transport accidents are due to fire.

Yet from the moment passengers arrive at airports they are almost encouraged to become involved in measures that may seriously prejudice their chance of survival in an accident. From the baggage check-in, when large items of baggage are often allowed to be taken into the cabin rather than having to go into the hold, to the duty free bottles that are bought and taken on board, the hazards multiply. Yet what we allow at Heathrow or at Gatwick in terms of excess baggage, the Canadian aviation authorities refuse to allow at their airports. At the baggage check-in at Canadian airports, only luggage that will go through a certain size of metal hoop may be taken into the cabin. Otherwise, bulky luggage must go into the hold. As the magazineFlightcommented: Carry-on baggage can and does kill both directly by hitting people and indirectly by blocking aisles, obstructing exits and generally adding to confusion in an emergency. What of all the glass bottles, full of alcohol or scent, that we buy at the duty-free shop before embarkation? I know that the British Airports Authority likes to tell us what a money spinning business the sale of duty-free goods is. Indeed, it goes so far as to claim that it makes £34 million annually out of duty-free sales. Certainly, on the way out to London Airport one sees an enormous poster exhorting us to buy before we fly. I wonder whether we are wise to pay any heed to that poster. As the AA has suggested, duty-free may not be the cut-price bonanza that we all imagine, although admittedly that was in a recent article in its magazineDrive and Trail, relating to ferries. I suggest, however, that the way in which duty-free is currently operated provides an unnecessary hazard to air passengers.

Is it really necessary to cram the floor areas and sometimes the overhead lockers in the cabin with duty-free bottles when the airport into which the same passengers are flying will have the same bottles for sale in its duty—free shops? Some years ago it was estimated that on any one day approximately 20,000 bottles of liquor are in transit between the United States and Europe. It seems incredible that we all feel that we must carry a bottle from point of departure to destination when it would be possible to buy the same bottles on leaving the aircraft.

I have raised this matter before in the House. As a result of publicity given to the question that I asked I received a number of letters from people involved in civil aviation. One airline captain, a member of the British Airline Pilots Association, wrote: To be forced to travel in an aircraft surrounded by gallons of flammable liquor packed in very fragile bottles seems a quite unnecessary hazard. Not only do the bottles constitute a fire hazard but they are a deceleration hazard since violent deceleration can result in bottle missiles flying through the cabin. They are a rescue hazard in the event of evacuating passengers and a security risk since a broken bottle can be used as a weapon. Unlike most safety problems, there is in this case a very simple solution. That is to allow passengers to make duty-free purchases on arrival instead of at departure. The same quantity of spirits would be imported without duty being paid so Customs should not object. This sensible system has operated very successfully for many years in Iceland and in Singapore. It has now been adopted in Egypt and Venezuela, shortly to be followed by Australia. One is inclined to ask why, if those other countries can introduce that system, we cannot. Apart from the obvious increase in safety, the purchase of duty-free goods at the airport of disembarkation could be of considerable benefit to airlines in fuel savings. Clearly, they would not have to carry this large additional weight inside the fuselage. The Australian Minister of Transport stated in a news release that airlines operating into Australia, once they had achieved the proposal to reduce the quantity of duty-free brought into the country, would achieve fuel savings of about £89,000 per annum. That release was issued in 1980, so, presumably, the figure is marginally higher today.

I wish that my only concern about airliner safety related to excess luggage and duty-free drink. Alas, it does not. A member of the air safety group of which I am deputy chairman, Dr. John Horsfall, who has been a research assistant at the department of geophysics at Cambridge, has written a number of articles on the safety of aircraft seats and how their present design makes it not surprising that fractures of the femur are a disturbing common injury in accidents where the aircraft has a moderately large component of vertical velocity. He makes that comment because, as he points out, the seat cushions are supported by strips of rubber webbing which fail under comparatively light-weight loads thrusting the passenger down upon the metal structure. Thus the fractured femur.

Dr. Horsfall argues that aircraft seats ought to be tested dynamically as well as statically, and he cites an aircraft seat maker who tested one of his seats on a car seat test rig. The aircraft seat disintegrated completely. It seems extraordinary that someone as distinguished as Dr. Horsfall can make these comments without the CAA, apparently, wanting to take what I should have thought ought to be immediate action to ensure the introduction of the dynamic testing of seats. Further, I shall not be satisfied if I am told that the CAA does not think that adequate test facilities exist, since I understand that one car seat manufacturer has offered to make its test facilities available.

I am told that the covering of the seats is resistant only to scorches from causes such as cigarette burns, but is not in any sense resistant to a cabin fire. Of course, under the seat cover we find our old and dangerous friend, polyurethane foam to which the House has devoted many hours in trying to persuade furniture manufacturers to find a safer alternative. Everyone knows that the foam is highly inflammable and that it gives off dense smoke and highly toxic fumes, which can kill. Although the Airline Users Council drew attention to its concern about the matter only last year, the material continues to be widely used in airline seats on all British airliners. It is estimated that a major cabin fire in an airliner will kill everyone inside within 60 to 90 seconds, assuming that the people cannot get out.

If polyurethane foam were the only foam available for aircraft seats the airlines could be forgiven for purchasing seats made with it. It is not. New materials are being developed here and in the United States. Polyimide resilient foam, for instance, is fire-resistant up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and even then it only chars or decomposes. It produces neither toxic fumes nor smoke. It could extend the time available for passengers to escape from a burning aircraft by two to five minutes. It seems a natural choice for new aircraft seats, particularly as it is 50 per cent. lighter than polyurethane foam. However, I am told that British Airways have not specified it for the seats that they are installing in their new Boeing 757 aircraft. They are content to fit polyurethane foam seats.

I know that some listening to this speech may feel it right to ask, if only three out of every 1 million boarded passengers end up as fatalities: am I not making a great song and dance about safety? Anyway, safety costs money, and do not the airlines have to be money-conscious in the highly competitive world of aviation? I accept that safety costs money. One must ask how much the airlines are justified to spend on safety, and what is the price of human life and injury.

I wonder whether we use the argument about money too much. For instance, for at least 15 years all cars in this country have had to be fitted with burst-proof doors. That does not apply to overhead lockers in airliner cabins or to the doors of the galleys, although both lockers and galleys often contain heavy objects, which in some forms of survivable accident will come spilling out into the aisles, or hit people on the head.

Recently, a British-owned DC10 burst a tyre on takeoff. One might say that it was quite a minor accident. Yet the effect of the accident was to make every overhead locker door spring open and whatever was in the lockers come out. In an accident in Athens in 1979, involving a DC8, much heavy material came out of the lockers because the doors did not remain shut.

It is not my intention to spread fear and alarm about flying and its hazards. I wish to underline the fact that flying is a very safe form of travel, but that does not mean that we should sit on our hands and assure ourselves that nothing more needs to be done. New standards and new regulations are required from the Civil Aviation Authority regarding matters such as seat strengths and upholstery, duty-free shopping, excess luggage, and burst-proof locks on locker doors. The question must also be asked whether there are enough fire extinguishers in the cabin and whether the emergency exit marked inside the cabin is also clearly marked on the outside of the fuselage. When an aircraft that has crashed is sprayed with anti-flame foam, the rescue crew will not know unless the doors are clearly marked, where they should be attempting to cut into the fuselage. Only Austrian Airlines, I believe, goes to any trouble with its colour scheme to ensure that emergency exits are clearly marked on the outside.

I do not mention these safety measures freshly today. They are talked about in the aircraft industry. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have penetrated sufficiently into the Civil Aviation Authority or British Airways for either of those State-owned organisations to feel the immediacy that I feel. If the cabin fire in the Saudi-Arabian Lockheed Tristar, when 301 people died—no doubt as a result of the toxic fumes from the polyurethane foam in the seats—had happened at London Airport, I do not believe that the Minister would have rested until the accident had been investigated and those responsible for safety standards in our airlines had introduced measures to ensure that this sort of survivable accident really was survivable and did not mean a dreadful death for 301 people.

Photo of Mr Reginald Eyre Mr Reginald Eyre , Birmingham, Hall Green 12:31, 22 May 1981

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has raised a subject of great public importance and interest, and I am grateful to him for doing so. Air safety is a complex business. Safety is indivisible from aircraft matters, as I shall seek to explain. Safety is the end result of a number of factors and disciplines, all of which have to work satisfactorily if an aircraft is to fly safely from A to B and to carry its passengers safely throughout the journey.

Aircraft need to be airworthy and to be flown by trained and competent crews using approved operational procedures in a safe air traffic control environment and properly-equipped and run airports. A weakness in any one discipline, however small, can destroy the total effect. To achieve safety, one has to start with rules. Aviation is international, and international standards and recommended practices for the safe conduct of aviation have been adopted for world-wide use. They are to be found in the annexes to the convention of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to which signatory States are bound. These standards provide the basis for the formulation of each country's own more detailed aviation regulations. In the United Kingdom they are contained in the Air Navigation Order 1980, the Rules of the Air and Air Traffic Regulations 1981 and the Air Navigation (General) Regulations 1981.

Aviation is the most tightly regulated of all forms of public transport. Detailed and comprehensive regulations have little meaning if they are not complied with. The task in this country falls to the Civil Aviation Authority, which is statutorily responsible for aircraft safety in the United Kingdom and is staffed and organised accordingly.

The fitness of aircraft to fly is the concern of the airworthiness division. Responsibility for monitoring the safety of airline operations rests with the operations division of the authority. I believe that it will be helpful if I specify more particularly the duties of those divisions, which make such an important contribution to the total concept of safety, and which relate to many of the points raised by my hon. Friend.

Before an aircraft on the British register can fly it must have a certificate of airworthiness granted by the airworthiness division of the Civil Aviation Authority, which issues the certificate only when it is satisfied that the aircraft complies with the British Civil airworthiness requirements—or in these days the joint airworthiness requirements, which is a unified code developed for use in Europe. Certificates are renewed at intervals. The airworthiness division also ensures that a aircraft are properly maintained in service by approving the maintenance organisations and the responsible licensed engineers, and the maintenance schedules to be followed. The division employs highly qualified and experienced experts, both in headquarters and as surveyors in the field. They work in close collaboration with the aircraft manufacturers, airlines and maintenance organisations. British airworthiness standards enjoy a high reputation at home and abroad.

Ensuring the safe operation of transport aircraft is the responsibility of the operations division of the CAA. It carries out the testing, licensing and medical examination of aircrew. Its flight operations inspectorate has particular responsibility for granting air operators' certificates, without which airlines cannot operate, and for checking that each airline is a fit and proper organisation to secure the safety of its operations.

To that end, its flight inspectors—who are themselves licensed and experienced airline pilots—work closely with the airlines for the purpose of monitoring their operations manuals, training schedules, flying records and flight time limitations. In addition, the inspectors fly with their crews. The high standard of operational safety achieved by British airlines overall is a tribute to the airlines and their crews, and to the work of the flight operations inspectorate.

Air safety is not easily achieved overnight, but is painstakingly built up over the years. It requires constant vigilance to maintain the high standards required. Accidents occur when there is a failure in any one of the disciplines, whether through human error, or through the failure of equipment or systems. If we measure safety by the accident record, it is shown that there has been a steady improvement over the years.

One year's statistics can mislead, but averages taken over a period of years can tell a story. In the past 20 years the number of accidents has halved. If we take the number of passengers killed for every 1 million carried on British airlines over a 10-year period, the figure for 1970 to 1979 is 1·76. The figures for the moving 10-year average for the years 1974 through to 1978 are as follows: 4·94, 4·53, 3·39, 2·05 and 1·75. Those figures show a trend towards improvement and underline the figure that my hon. Friend gave. The statistics of fatal accidents per 100,000 stage flights tell a similar story of improvement, but I agreed with the tenor of my hon. Friend's speech when he implied that we should not be complacent about any of the aspects

My hon. Friend referred to particular aspects and to certain incidents. Fire has always been a serious hazard in aircraft accidents. All possible measures are taken to minimise that risk, and much research effort is directed to that end. The most promising avenue of investigation is the possible use of anti-misting additive to fuel, developed by ICI, to curtail the outbreak and spread of fires caused by spilt fuel.

My hon. Friend referred to the accident involving the Saudi Arabian Tristar at Riyadh, in which all the passengers and crew died. That was a dreadful tragedy, but the report is not yet available and it is therefore difficult to comment. It appears that most of the victims died of asphyxiation. The accident investigation was carried out by United States officials and was reported. Our airworthiness division is in close contact with the Federal Aviation Authority, which participated in the investigation. I assure my hon. Friend that the implications of that accident will be considered carefully by representatives of all airlines, including our own.

I emphasise the international aspects of air safety, because each State is responsible, in its own sovereign right, for its own aviation affairs. In securing the safe operation of their public transport aircraft, States are expected to conform to the ICAO standards, and if there were any specific complaint of shortcomings in that respect it would be possible to make appropriate representations on an international basis.

My hon. Friend referred to aircraft furnishing materials. All fabrics and cabin furnishings used in aircraft have to satisfy the flammability specifications of British civil airworthiness requirements, which require that materials have to be self-extinguishing. Nevertheless, all organic materials will burn if temperatures are high enough.

Considerable effort and money have been spent on research to develop furnishing materials that will meet more stringent requirements, not only in respect of flammability, but for smoke emission and toxicity. I appreciate the importance of the factors that my hon. Friend underlined. Progress is being made in finding better materials to satisfy those more stringent requirements. A promising material named polyimide has been developed by International Harvesters, but I understand that it is difficult to manufacture in quantity, and that may account for the supply problem to which my hon. Friend referred. I also appreciate the importance of my hon. Friend's general reference to fire hazards connected with seating materials.

I emphasise that the duties of the CAA and how they are discharged are subject to review by the Air Registration Board, an independent body comprising representatives of the aviation industry, including manufacturers, airline pilots, insurers and representatives of the CAA, who advise and are consulted by the board on matters connected with airworthiness standards. It can be seen that the CAA is not a law unto itself. The board reviews its activities in accordance with the best advice that it is possible to receive.

I shall draw the attention of the CAA to the points raised by my hon. Friend. I appreciate that he dealt with a number of matters, including overhead lockers, luggage, and the various arrangements made at airports to serve passengers. They will all be given careful consideration by the CAA.

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no sense of complacency on the part of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade, who has ministerial responsibility for aviation matters. There is an awareness in my Department of the need for constant vigilance and of the need to search for higher standards to ensure a higher degree of safety and convenience wherever possible. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these important matters.