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

Dec 7, 2017

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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

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