Despite 25-year ban, smoke hasn't completely cleared on planes

  • It's been illegal to smoke on domestic airplanes since 1990.

    It's been illegal to smoke on domestic airplanes since 1990. Associated Press File Photo

Posted7/10/2015 6:00 AM

When was the last time you saw someone light up on an airplane?

I'm not talking about the woman who gets giddy when she finds space for her carry-on in the overhead bin, or the man who hyperventilates over a second bag of peanuts at 35,000 feet.


I'm talking about someone who actually opens a pack of Camels and flips his Bic. If you had been on a certain United Airlines flight traveling from Denver to Boston, it could have been very recently.

Here's what happened. About 30 minutes into this flight, a gentleman (and I use that term loosely) saw an ashtray in the lavatory and decided to use it. He set off the smoke alarm, which set off the flight attendants.

When they asked him to put it out, he blew smoke in their faces and refused. The captain returned to Denver and had the man removed. Then, because the crew had flown too many hours, the flight was canceled. All the passengers spent the night in Denver, which must have caused a slow burn among most of them.

This isn't a lone incident. Last month on an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne, Australia, a man attacked a flight attendant when she told him to put out his cigarette. It took several passengers to subdue him. The passenger spent most of the 13-hour flight tied to his seat.

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It's been more than 20 years since the airlines banned smoking on aircraft. But it was a long time in coming. During the early 1960s, airlines encouraged passengers to smoke. Before takeoff, we flight attendants passed out sample packets of cigarettes and matches from a silver tray. As soon as the "No Smoking" sign turned off, half the passengers lit up.

In the early 1970s, the Surgeon General announced smoking was hazardous to your health, and the airlines introduced smoking sections.

At first, the last two rows of each cabin were designated smoking sections. If a passenger seated next to this area complained, the flight attendant would try to move him to another seat. If that didn't work, she would ask the smoker to put out his cigarette. This might have been the birth of air rage.

Sometimes an entire cabin was reserved for smokers. On the Lockheed L-1011 jet, it was the back section. It was referred to as the "coughing zone." Often the smoke was so thick, you couldn't distinguish what was served as the in-flight meal -- possibly the only perk of sitting there.

In 1990, the U.S. government banned smoking on all domestic carriers, and the airlines installed smoke detectors in the lavatories. Passengers addicted to smoking found ways to disconnect them. So tampering with a smoke detector became a federal offense.


About 20 years ago, on a flight traveling from Paris to New York, the smoke detector began beeping. Two of us forced the lavatory door open. We caught the culprit with his pants down. Literally. When we arrived in New York, he was ushered off the plane by police.

That was just three months after the U.S. government made smoking illegal on international flights taking off or landing in the United States.

Recently, on a flight to Miami, a flight attendant asked a passenger to put out his cigarette that wasn't lit. It was an electronic cigarette, which the passenger claimed didn't give off smoke and wasn't a fire hazard. The flight attendant won. But many e-smokers are convinced they should be allowed on airplanes.

When it comes to lighting up on an aircraft, it may be different than it was in the past, but the smoke still hasn't completely cleared.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 20 years. She can be reached at

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