The battle for smoke free planes


Amid the security checks, cramped seating and baggage fees, it’s easy to pine for the glory days of air travel. When food was abundant (and included in the price of your ticket), you had room to cross your legs and fashionable air hostesses handed out cocktails and chewing gum. And if you wanted to light up, then — like most anywhere else — you simply lit up. A smoking section on an airplane … is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.

The smoke-filled cabin seems hard to imagine today, a quaint relic of a bygone era when travel also meant white gloves and meaningful customer service. But the right…was far from a given. Just 25 years ago, thanks to the efforts of an intrepid few, from key lawmakers to, yes, valiantly disagreeable flight attendants, a public health hazard went from established custom to punishable offense.

The fight to keep the “No Smoking” sign on in airplanes crossing the friendly skies was not an easy one.

I remember when it was legal to smoke on planes. Seems insane now.

  • Chris

    In 1989, many airlines had already gone non-smoking. My high school had an exchange trip to France, and, of course, the teachers didn’t let us book smoking seats (Air France still had them.) We tried asking those in the smoking seats if we could borrow their seats for a few minutes, but no one obliged.

    So, I went into the bathroom, where they had newly installed smoke detectors. They were just bolted on, like the ones in your house. So I took off the covering, pulled out the battery, and threw it in the trash. I lit up a smoke and enjoyed. After I left, I made the mistake of telling a couple fellow students what I had done.

    So, there was a big line for the bathroom, but no one wanted to use any other stall but the one I had used. People offered the use of other stalls, but all the students just said “I’m waiting for this one”. They weren’t scared to get caught smoking, they were scared to get caught disabling a smoke detector!

    I still find it amazing that I got away with this, but probably all the flight crew knew what we were doing, and it just wasn’t a big deal. I mean the cabin was already filled with smoke from the smoking aisles, anyway, so why worry about it? We weren’t doing something prohibited, we were just doing it in the wrong place. Like smoking in the non-smoking section of a restaurant.

    If I tried something like this today, disabling a smoke detector, and actually igniting something, the plane would be immediately turned around and grounded and I would be charged with attempted terrorism.

    I’m not saying we should still allow smoking on planes, clearly not, but it’s amazing how different a world we live in today.

  • Back in the early days, Apple employees on a business trip would fly first class, and they would always book all the smoking seats. But none of them smoked, effectively making First Class a smoke-free section.