The last airline to ban inflight smoking was the Cuban flag carrier Cubana. Former cigar smoking Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, had banned smoking on domestic flights in 2005. However, the airline held out on international flights until 2014. Quite remarkable when you consider many airlines have been smoke free for thirty years.
The last time I was on a flight where smoking was permitted, was in 2005 on a charter flight between Baku, Azerbaijan and Atyrau, Kazakhstan. As I was still a smoker myself back then, I had to take advantage of such a novelty. So, I lit up one of my aptly named Caspian lights, as we flew over the Caspian Sea and sat back and enjoyed the flight.
Well, not entirely. You see at least half of the passengers seemed to have the same idea. Within ten minutes of the first smoker lighting up, the cabin was a smoke box. If you are in a car smoking, you always crack the window down an inch, to let the smoke be drawn outside and allow some fresh air to enter. You have no such luxury with an airplane. The blower above your head seemed to do little to dispense of any smoke. Even as a smoker it felt uncomfortable, my eyes began to sting and become watery in those conditions. The moral of this story, smoking on planes is horrendous.
As a reformed smoker for eleven years now, I am not keen to interact with tobacco smoke in any situation. We no longer permit smoking in bars and restaurants which were the last public bastion of the smoker and we are all the better for it. But back in the 1990s things were very different. Smoking on flights was relatively common and not great for those who didn’t smoke. Stuck in poorly ventilated metal cylinder you had little choice.
In the UK British Airways introduced a smoking ban in 1990 on a trial basis and Virgin airlines followed suit. It was not until 1995 that charter flights also applied a ban, by which time 90% of all UK flights were smoke free.
The U.S. banned inflight smoking on domestic flights of less than two hours in 1988. This was extended to domestic flights of six hours or less in 1990 and to all domestic and international flights in 2000. In 1994, Delta was the first airline in the USA to ban smoking on all worldwide flights.
In continental Europe it was a mixed bag, with some airlines such as Iberia, Aeroflot, and Condor all holding out until the mid-noughties to implement a ban on international flights. The EU banned smoking on flights to other member states in 1997.
Prior to those flight changing smoking bans, you could expect cabin air quality similar to the great smog of London. In the early days of commercial aviation, travellers could smoke anywhere on the plane. In the 1970´s, public concern regarding passive smoking were on the increase and many airlines created smoking and non-smoking sections for passengers. As you can imagine, smoke that has very few places to escape in a pressurised cabin, is not going to observe these invisible boundaries.
Some airlines actively encouraged smoking. In the 1950´s, Scandinavian airline SAS manufactured its own cigarettes, with the SAS logo printed on the cigarette. Other airlines picked up on the trend and started offering inflight complimentary cigarettes as a marketing ploy. This compounded an already smokey issue.
Airlines take the smoking bans very seriously. No-smoking warnings are part of the safety announcements made before take-off on most flights.
Passengers are reminded that this is a non-smoking flight, which means that smoking is not permitted in any part of the aircraft, including in the toilets which are protected by smoke detector alarms. As a reminder, the non-smoking sign will remain illuminated throughout the flight.
It is at the discretion of the captain to decide on the course of action to take when dealing with an inflight smoker. In many cases the individual will be arrested on arrival at the destination airport, but depending on the circumstances and the security risk, the flight could be diverted to have the passenger removed.
With all this in mind, it is an incredible to learn that it is not illegal for pilots and air crew to smoke inside the aircraft during flights in certain countries. The U.S and China included. This becomes irrelevant when the airline policy is a blanket ban on smoking, but if you have ever taken a flight in Asia in the last decade there is the possibility, you may have smelt cigarette smoke coming for somewhere mysterious. I can vouch for the fact some flights have “phantom smokers”. Air China has a poor record of flight crew smoking on its flights, which it has cracked down on in recent years. This culminated in an Air China flight making an emergency decent after the co-pilot was smoking an e-cigarette in the cockpit.
The age of smoking on flights is well and truly over. There is no need to accept a lung full of nicotine every time you go on vacation. We should all be grateful for the air quality on airplanes. For now, we can appreciate the smell of crusty passengers, microwaved meals, and jet fuel, and not have to worry about second-hand smoke causing us health issues. Now lets see if we can improve the legroom.