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Use Of Flammable Materials In Aircraft

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 30 October 1980

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3.19 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will use their influence to persuade the major airlines to prohibit the use in the cabins of aircraft of materials which are highly inflammable or which give off lethal gases if ignited.

My Lords, the responsibility for such matters lies with the Civil Aviation Authority. Furnishing materials already used in British passenger-carrying aircraft are required to satisfy the flame resistance specifications laid down in the British civil airworthiness requirements. Only materials which are not readily flammable and will not of themselves sustain low-level burning can meet these specifications. The question of toxic gases is another matter and is more difficult to resolve, as all organic materials can produce toxic fumes when burned.

My Lords, may I thank the Minister for that helpful and in many ways, in part, at least, reassuring Answer. I should like to press him a little on the latter part of my Question and to ask several supplementary questions. I apologise for the number of them, but they all bear on the same point so that perhaps he may answer them together. Would he not agree that there is something singularly horrible about an aeroplane with a cabin fire landing without damage and, before those inside can be taken out, every single one of more than 300 is dead? I am referring to the disaster at Riyadh. I know there has been no official report of this but it is conceded that the mode of death of these unfortunate people was precisely that which you would expect from the release of large toxic quantities of something in a confined space. May I ask whether, although it may be difficult but not impossible to control the use of materials which release gases as opposed to controlling flammability, it is agreed that this is becoming a more important subject with the chemical development of modern plastics? Thirdly, is the Minister aware that some of these plastics will release cyanide gas which will kill within seconds? Adding these together, will the noble Lord agree that it is not just flammability standards which require control but the release of dangerous chemicals?

My Lords, if I may answer the first point put by the noble Lord about the Saudi accident at Riyadh, I would suggest to him that it is a mistake to jump to conclusions about the causes of that accident. The authorities there are currently conducting an inquiry and I hope that in due course their report will be made available. As for the specific points that the noble Lord put subsequently, I can assure him that there is a considerable amount of research going on into this matter. We hope that the present position, which is not too unsatisfactory, can be improved in the near future.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the aircraft in question appears to have landed safely but that a few seconds later, by the time the runway had been cleared, everybody was dead? Pending the result of the inquiry, will he advise all British pilots who might be involved in similar circumstances to be sure to evacuate the aircraft as soon as it stops rolling and not bother to clear the runway?

My Lords, I am sure that British pilots do not need that sort of advice. I can tell the noble Lord that in fact the passengers were alive in the aircraft for some considerable number of minutes.