LIFE-SAVING new breathing equipment is to be rolled out across offshore helicopters 15 months earlier than planned, the industry regulator has announced.

All helicopters transporting workers between oil rigs or offshore windfarms must be fitted with the upgraded emergency kits from January 1, 2015. The regulation was originally due to come into force on April 1, 2016, but unions and industry representatives urged the Civil Aviation Authority to bring it forward as it will eliminate the need for controversial seating restrictions.

The CAA also announced that the implementation of the planned seating restrictions will now be pushed back three months until September 1. The rules stipulate that passengers can only fly if they are seated next to a push-out window exit, to aid their escape in the event of the aircraft ditching into the sea. However, there were fears it would result in job cuts by reducing capacity on the choppers by 30-40%.

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The CAA said it had delayed the introduction of seating restrictions to allow critical maintenance to be carried out on rigs over the summer, which would have been stymied by any cut in available workforce.

The decision was also influenced by recommended safety modifications for Airbus Helicopters' EC225s, which advise that all existing models be fitted with a redesigned gear shaft "as soon as possible". It comes after a Super Puma EC225 carrying 19 people ditched in the North Sea in 2012. Everyone on board was rescued but the crash was blamed on a faulty gearbox. However, replacing the gearshafts will require taking a number of helicopters out of service, adding to the pressures on transport if seating restrictions were brought in simultaneously.

Jake Molloy, RMT spokesman for offshore helicopter safety, welcomed the changes.

He said: "It's a common- sense approach. Workers will welcome the earlier introduction of breathing equipment and other safety improvements, but safety improvements don't do much to help you if you're sitting at home unemployed."

Body size restrictions, which will ban offshore workers from flying unless they can fit through a push-out while wearing breathing equipment, will also come into force on April 1.

However, CAA said the changes would be "sensibly managed" to avoid anyone losing their job as a result.

It added: "Exit sizes vary from one helicopter type to another - and even from one seat row to the next on some helicopters - and there are many options being explored, especially around seat allocation."