You Can’t Smoke on Planes—But Pilots (Sometimes) Can

Dec 7, 2017

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

When most people think of the golden age of air travel, they envision stylish passengers in tailored clothes eating exquisite meals off porcelain plates. What they often forget is that the air in those luxurious planes was usually heavy with smoke. Until 1971, most airlines allowed unrestricted smoking, both in the cabin and on the flight deck, where “Gear up, light up,” was a common refrain.

In the early 1970’s, some US carriers instituted nonsmoking sections, but as the stale air circulated through the cabin, pretty much all passengers could count on getting a lungful of nicotine. In fact, pilots and maintenance personnel recall that the outflow valves that regulate cabin pressure on airplanes often became clogged with tar and nicotine. This caused all sorts of problems, and the valves had to be scrubbed clean by maintenance crews.

The US government began to phase out smoking in 1988, and by 2000, it was prohibited on all US flights. The rest of the world followed suit, and today — on paper, at least — smoking is banned on all commercial flights. The last holdout, Cuba’s state-owned Cubana, banned smoking on international flights in 2014, and the following year, the US Department of Transportation prohibited the use of e-cigarettes on planes. Because of fire risk from their batteries, it also doesn’t allow them to be carried in checked baggage.

(As a side note, smoking weed is also a no-no on airplanes.)

But even with all of these bans in place, smoking still happens on some flights outside of the US. Some travelers have reported that Morocco’s Royal Air Maroc and Algerian carrier Air Algerie occasionally ignore smoking in the cabin. And sometimes it’s not the passengers, but the crew who smoke on board — an issue that seems to crop up with some regularity on China Eastern, the second-biggest Chinese airline.

The Points Guy discovered this himself while on a China Eastern flight from New York JFK to Shanghai, when he noted that the cabin had a “light to medium smell of cigarette smoke” that first appeared about 15 minutes into the flight. Technically, smoking in the cockpit is allowed by US law in some circumstances, but smoke wafting into the cabin isn’t something that people want to experience — especially passengers who pay thousands of dollars for a seat, since first and business class are directly behind the flight deck. People have reported that China Eastern flight attendants aren’t responsive to those concerns.

In the 1950s, smoking on board was perfectly normal even right next to children (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)
In the 1950s, smoking on board was perfectly normal even right next to children (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)

In the US, airline pilots who smoke are a rarity these days, and finding one who smokes while flying would be pretty much impossible. When the US went smoke-free on its domestic flights in the 1990s, it still let pilots smoke; the reasoning was that nicotine withdrawal symptoms could be a potential safety hazard — it’s one thing to have passengers fighting their nicotine cravings, but quite another to have a pilot sweating through a six-hour flight, desperate for a cigarette. In the decades since, the national attitude towards smoking has hardened, and now some airlines, like Alaska, even refuse to hire smokers. But in the rest of the world, where smoking is still more culturally acceptable, cigarettes can be an occasional sight in the cockpit.

Because a cigarette can cause a fire, airplane bathrooms are still equipped with ashtrays: airlines worry that, presented with no place to put out their cigarettes, clandestine smokers might throw them in the garbage, igniting paper towels and starting an onboard fire. But, ashtray aside, the penalties for smoking on a plane can still be steep.

In the US, a passenger caught smoking (or vaping) can be fined up to $4,000, and can sometimes get arrested, although in most cases you have to do something worse — like tampering with a smoke detector or resisting an order to stop smoking — in order for authorities to arrest you on landing.

While the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t publish the details about most of its in-flight smoking fines, only about 10% of the fines issued by the FAA are related to in-flight smoking, according to an analysis by USA Today. Travelers have reported that the fines are often small. For example, in 2011, a man flying from Tampa to Milwaukee smoked twice in an airplane bathroom and was fined only $50. In other cases, you might even get off scot free (although that is very rare, and it helps if you are some kind of VIP, for example a foreign diplomat.)

So, while it’s a terrible idea to light up on a plane, if you do get caught but quietly return to your seat, chances are good that there won’t be any need for the flight crew to call the F-16s — or pull out the handcuffs!

Feature photo by Chris von Wangenheim/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.