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Airlines: Passenger Seating Standards

2.58 p.m.

Lord Borrie asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Civil Aviation Authority has had mandatory minimum standards for seat spacing on UK registered aircraft since 1989. These are contained in Airworthiness Notice No. 64. However, these standards are set for reasons of safety rather than passenger comfort. There is also a limit on the number of seats allowed in each row, which determines the minimum widths of seats.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer. Is he aware that after privatisation British Airways reduced the space between one seat and the seat in front by three inches? Is he further aware that both in British Airways and other airlines--it is worse with charter aircraft--the space between seats and the space available for passengers has been reducing? This causes not only discomfort but can cause serious medical problems such as deep-vein thrombosis; that is, blood clots which can extend from the leg to the heart and the lungs. It is a matter which concerns comfort and health as well as safety. Does my noble friend agree that the minimum standards could be improved?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is probably the case that the UK Government alone prescribe minimum requirements. There are no international standards in relation to this; therefore, what I have said does not apply to non-British carriers. As regards schedule and charter airlines, in general British carriers are above the minimum standard. I have hitherto regarded my noble friend as having one of the trimmer figures in this House. Therefore, if he experiences some discomfort there is clearly a problem. It is, however, not a problem for the safety authorities, but for the consumer.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, a comfortable passenger is one who is five foot six and a half!

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from experience. Would that we were all designed that way!

The individual airlines have a commercial responsibility to meet the requirements of their passengers. Those requirements relate to price as well as to comfort.

The Earl of Gowrie: My Lords, is not a comfortable passenger a safe passenger?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is probably more true to say that a sober passenger is a safe passenger, and there

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is no evident correlation between incidents of air rage and the number of people on board, let alone the configuration of the seats.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, does my noble friend recall the terrible accident that occurred at Manchester airport a few years ago and the recommendations that arose from that in terms of seat materials and safety generally? Have those recommendations been implemented?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I understand that so far as British airlines are concerned they have been implemented. I cannot give an absolute assurance in relation to other airlines.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is rather peculiar that there are international regulations governing the transportation of live animals, but no such regulations governing transport for live human beings? If they cannot achieve international regulation, is it not time that the UK Government and other governments did something about this within the European Union? Secondly, as airlines that ship live cargo can be prosecuted, has any airline ever been prosecuted for having seats that are too small? I am not a particularly large person. I know people who are both taller and wider than myself. But even I sometimes find difficulty, particularly in long-haul aircraft. I agree with the noble Lord who suggested that an uncomfortable passenger is more likely to become enraged than a comfortable one.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not aware of any prosecution. We are reasonably confident that all British airlines at least meet the minimum standards laid down in the air worthiness notice. I note the noble Baroness's point about co-ordinated European action. But all aircraft have a maximum payload in terms of total numbers of passengers laid down by the manufacturer in obtaining the original certification. Hence there is a maximum number laid down internationally in that sense. Nevertheless, I repeat the point that, although comfort is a major consideration, in terms of regulation, safety must be the priority; and in terms of passenger requirements, it is frequently price rather than comfort that matters.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords--

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Trumpington!

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, it is my turn. Perhaps I may declare a personal interest. I am a particularly large person.

Noble Lords: No!

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, so far the Minister has avoided saying exactly what is the minimum seat size. Is he able to give the House that information? With great respect to the Minister, I do not

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suppose that he really needs much leg-room, but I most certainly do. So will he please give the requirements for leg-room as well?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that I require at least as much leg-room as the noble Baroness, probably somewhat more. I recognise that it is an important consideration. The normal distance is 26 inches between the back of the seat and the seat in front. There is also a specific requirement that there should be a distance of seven inches between the front of a seat and the seat structure in front. So that may be said to be seven inches of leg-room, plus a minimum vertical projected distance of three inches. I hope that noble Lords now have the configuration absolutely clear in their minds.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very important, when setting regulations, also to take into account the needs of disabled passengers, particularly those of permanent wheelchair users, who have serious problems transferring to an aircraft and moving along the aisle with the chairs being carried?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, and I believe that the major British carriers make adequate arrangements in that respect. It is important that they bear that in mind on all occasions.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I remember how my mother used to discipline me, and that that is why I gave way to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington? Is my noble friend also aware that, yesterday, I spent three and a half hours on a British Airways flight between Edinburgh and Heathrow? In view of all the current publicity regarding Virgin Airways and British Airways installing seat-beds on their aircraft in order that passengers on long-haul flights between Heathrow and New York can get a good night's sleep, will my noble friend advise British Airways to install seat-beds on the flights between Edinburgh and Heathrow?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I regret that my noble friend had a long journey this morning.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: Yesterday morning. My overnight allowance is at stake!

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I trust that, in order to receive the somewhat meagre overnight allowance, the noble Lord does not find it necessary to have a bed on the Edinburgh to London flight very frequently.

Configuration is ultimately a matter for the individual airlines. If Virgin considers that a bed-like structure is necessary on its transatlantic flights, I am sure that British Airways will consider the possibility in relation to the journey from Edinburgh to Heathrow. However, that is probably too short a time for the use of the bed in any sense.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am not generally regarded as having the fuller figure, but I must declare an interest

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in the Question. Does the Minister agree that attempting to eat in a seat that is too narrow for comfort is bad both for the passenger's digestion and for the next-door neighbour's comfort?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I suspect that that is so. I suspect that the quality of airline food may have an effect as well. But I repeat that the price of air travel has been reduced dramatically. That is because, by and large, aircraft carry a large number of passengers. That must be one of the considerations in the commercial interest of the airlines. While it is important that they provide comfort, price should also be taken into account.


3.7 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment my noble friend the Leader of the House will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on Kosovo and the Cologne Summit. Following that, my noble friend Lord Donoughue will, again with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement on food contamination in Belgium.

Road Traffic (Enforcement Powers) Bill [H.L.]

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make further provision about the enforcement of requirements relating to drivers' hours and about the licensing of operators of goods vehicles; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Earl Attlee.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

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