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In the earlier days of aviation, it was common for the passengers to be dressed in their Sunday best, eating a three-course meal, and lighting up a tobacco pipe.
Indeed, smoking was a regular part of life in the mid-20th century. The risks of smoking were disregarded, and it was normal behavior. On airplanes, it was no different. A flight attendant would happily pass out a cigar and light it up for a passenger.
That seems like a distant memory as airlines now forbid smoking on flights.
Smoking on an airline flight today can create a chain of events resulting in a lifetime ban from flying, a large fine, and potentially jail time. There is a complex history of smoking on aircraft. It was legal and happening in some places until quite recently. But, smoking is not allowed on flights anywhere in the world.
As an airline captain, I have not encountered anyone trying to smoke on one of my flights. If a passenger smoked, it could create a serious safety concern, and even worse, give me a lot of paperwork to do! While captains do not have unlimited power, I would not suggest trying to sneak a cigarette. That is a one-way ticket to getting a lifetime ban and being met by police on landing.
Why Can’t You Smoke on a Plane?
The most obvious danger of smoking is fire. An inflight fire can be the most significant emergency a pilot could face. Though trained for this scenario in simulators, a midair fire can be catastrophic.
Excluding the health risks from second-hand smoke in a confined area, smoking an airplane creates other problems. Mechanics often had to clean out air filters and scrub away tar to keep air flowing through the vents. Also, as fewer people smoked, it became more of a nuisance to other passengers.
There are a couple of notable aviation accidents involving smoking. In 1973 a Boeing 707 crash-landed near Paris, 123 people died from smoke inhalation and the forced landing (source). The cause was determined to be a fire in the rear lavatory sparked by a cigarette. The fire spread through the cabin, and smoke billowed around causing carbon monoxide poisoning.
This accident and further studies prompted the government to intervene and take action to keep the airlines safe.
And thus, the ban on smoking on board begins.
When Was Smoking Banned on Planes?
In response to the safety concerns from smoking, regulators began creating stricter rules around smoking on flights. However, it took many years before being banned entirely.
The first step started in 1971 when United Airlines created a dedicated nonsmoking section of the cabin. There was substantial pressure from the tobacco industry pushing for less regulation. Despite this, in 1976 the United States banned pipe smoking and cigar use on aircraft. This initial smoking ban was repealed, then removed several times over a decade.
The first serious change came a decade later from an act of Congress.
In 1987 a law was signed in the USA to ban smoking on domestic flights under 2 hours. Then in February 1990 this law was expanded to a ban smoking on flights under 6 hours. And finally in September 2000 smoking became outright banned on all domestic and international flights (source).
During this period of government intervention, airlines created their own policies against smoking. Delta Air Lines was the first worldwide airline to ban smoking outright on all flights in 1994.
In 2014, Cubana Airlines, Cuba’s flagship airline banned smoking. Amazingly, there was not an official law against smoking on aircraft in China until 2017. These were the last two countries to ban smoking on flights.
What Happens if You Smoke on a Plane?
During training to operate a specific airliner, I learned every alarm and system on the jet. There are numerous detectors inside the cabin, lavatories, and across the outside of the aircraft. These detectors will signal overheating, smoke, or fire. If any of these detectors sense an issue it immediately creates a warning inside the cockpit.
All preflight safety announcements include specific rules against smoking onboard a flight. These regulations are a part of the federal code. That means, violating these rules is breaking the law.
The legal consequences can vary but will most likely involve a large fine. An airline also has the right to ban passengers for life. When this happens, it is common to have a news article written. Not something you would want to show up on google if an employer searches for you.
The more substantial legal issue arises when someone disobeys a crewmember’s instructions. Interfering with a flight attendant and ignoring instructions about smoking could result in larger fines and jail time because it is a federal offense.
No Smoking. Got It. What About Vaping on a Plane?
It seems the concern about smoking comes from the fire risk. Wouldn’t using e-cigarettes (as a safer alternative) on a plane allowed? The answer is no.
In 2016 e-cigarettes were officially banned on aircraft. They contain a small battery that could cause a small explosion or intense fire (source). If a fire were to start from an e-cigarette, its lithium battery could become uncontrollably hot. This situation is called “thermal runaway”.
Flight attendants are trained and equipped with different types of fire extinguishers to handle various fire emergencies. However, in a small cabin filled with smoke, it could be difficult or impossible to isolate and stop the fire.
You are allowed to travel with e-cigarettes, but make sure to keep them in your carry-on bag and check that they are switched off, or the battery is disconnected. Charging the e-cigarette is also not allowed for the same fire concerns.
Why Do Airplanes Still Have Ashtrays?
While sitting in the tight little aircraft lavatory, you may have noticed an ashtray. Why would the airplane have an ashtray if smoking has been banned for over 20 years?
It is a feature required by federal law. They decided if someone does break the law, it would be better to have a proper place to dispose of the hot ashes. Throwing a cigarette into the trash could be catastrophic.
It is such a concern that most aircraft come equipped with a smoke detector and an extinguisher system in the lavatory trash.
It would automatically detect and release a flame retardant in the lavatory. That would most likely result in the pilots diverting the aircraft. As the captain, I would also request that law enforcement meet us at the aircraft when we park to handle the smoker.
Some aircraft seats still have ashtrays in them too. That is most likely because the seats are just old and have not been upgraded yet. As airlines update their fleets, this will be a sight of the past.
Are Pilots Allowed to Smoke on Planes?
For smokers, going hours without smoking can cause serious side-effects. When smoking bans started in 1990, there was one exception: The pilots were allowed to keep smoking!
Pilots are allowed to keep smoking in the cockpit as a safety measure. Regulators are concerned that withdrawal symptoms during flight would be a safety hazard.
What Should Smokers Do?
Many airports now have dedicated smoking areas and lounges available. That is the best option if you will be on a long flight and are worried about nicotine withdrawal.
Some may try to bring chewing tobacco. There are different policies in place currently. While not outright banned, many airlines have prohibited using it onboard. You can still carry it in your checked bag and carry-ons. This rule could change soon, so look this up before traveling.
Can You Smoke on a Private Plane?
You could imagine some uber-rich celebrity flying in their private jet partying and smoking. And, they very well could be doing that.
The rules involving smoking are meant for passenger airlines and do not necessarily apply to private aircraft. So, technically you are allowed to smoke on a private plane (that you own).
It still seems like a horrible idea to me. The cost of private aircraft is incredible. Every chair, part, carpet, upholstery is more expensive than anything at home. It has to go through rigorous testing to be approved. If it has a lasting smoke smell, it could be millions of dollars to repair before selling the jet.
But, if you have the money and want to. Feel free to smoke on your private airplane.
Chartering a private aircraft is a different situation. Just because it is a private plane does not mean it is your private plane. These types of planes are operated by companies that have rules and may also be required under law to ban smoking onboard.
Smoking on flights is a thing of the past. The safety concerns far outweighed any positives of allowing it. During the period of greater government regulation three and four decades ago, lawmakers made smoking permanently illegal on most flights.
The consequence of smoking on flights is likely a lifetime ban plus fines and even jail time.
E-cigarettes are not a suitable replacement for smoking either. If someone needs to smoke, most airports will have an area they can smoke before or after their flight.
Don’t be fooled by the ashtrays in the lavatory. Smoking is a serious offense. There are sensitive detectors throughout the plane that will catch even the sneakiest smoker.
If you travel often, smoking will be a tough habit to maintain. I suspect it is the reason I have met very few pilots or flight attendants who smoke.
Phil McCain is an experienced U.S. airline pilot. He has accumulated over 3500 hours of flight time across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. He is also a flight instructor, industry expert, and passionate traveler. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan. Outside of the cockpit, Phil loves to read, cook, run, and explore the world around him. Here’s his website.