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Why Do Airplanes Still Have Ashtrays?

Why Do Airplanes Still Have Ashtrays?

Smoking is strictly prohibited on airplanes, so the presence of ashtrays might seem puzzling. However, there are valid reasons for their continued existence, and you'll appreciate their presence. During the golden era of air travel, when passengers dressed up and cigarette smoke filled the cabin, even with designated smoking sections, the smoke would drift into nonsmoking areas, sometimes through inadequate or absent curtains. Today, air travel has evolved, and smoking is prohibited throughout the aircraft. Nonetheless, the question remains: why are there still ashtrays on airplanes? Let's delve into the reasons for the persistence of these fixtures and what happens when someone attempts to smoke on a plane nowadays.

Why are there ashtrays on airplanes? Despite the ban on smoking for over three decades, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still maintains a regulation to address potential rule violations. The FAA's directive mandates the presence of placards and repeated announcements to inform passengers of the no-smoking rule and to discourage them from extinguishing their cigarette butts in the restroom. This rule was prompted by previous incidents of fires breaking out in lavatories.

Moreover, the FAA's regulations require airplanes to be equipped with ashtrays. The rationale is that even though individual seat ashtrays are no longer necessary (they used to be embedded in armrests), there should still be a safe place to extinguish a cigarette if someone attempts to smoke illegally. Garbage cans and restroom bins are not suitable because an improperly extinguished butt could pose a fire hazard.

Observing your surroundings on your next flight, you will notice that ashtrays are typically located near the lavatory door, a requirement for new or refurbished planes. Why this specific location? It turns out that when individuals dare to smoke on a plane, they typically do so in the restroom. However, this is not a wise choice, as virtually every safety announcement emphasizes that aircraft lavatories are equipped with smoke detectors that alert the crew.

Ashtrays are considered so vital that if they are broken or inoperative, the plane cannot take off until they are repaired. In airline terminology, this is referred to as a "no-go" item, although there are exceptions for planes with multiple restrooms and ashtrays.

Is smoking on a plane truly a fire hazard? Absolutely! Numerous incidents have demonstrated that cigarette flames can jeopardize an entire aircraft. In the early 1970s, it is believed that a lavatory cigarette fire contributed to the crash of a Varig flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, resulting in the loss of 123 lives. In 2016, an EgyptAir flight crashed in the Mediterranean after a pilot was suspected of smoking a cigarette. Additionally, a lit cigarette from another pilot led to the crash of a US Bangla flight near Kathmandu in 2018.

When was smoking banned on flights? The process of eliminating smoking from flights was gradual. Despite years of complaints by airline staff about smoke and other issues, Congress issued the first smoking ban in 1988, initially applying only to domestic flights of two hours or less. In 1990, the ban was extended to flights of six hours or less. Pilots were still permitted to smoke at that time because there were concerns about potential safety hazards arising from withdrawal symptoms.

Delta Airlines became the first carrier to voluntarily implement a complete ban on smoking on all of its global flights in 1995. Subsequently, in 2000, all flights within the United States and those to and from the country officially became nonsmoking. While there is no overarching international governing body for all airlines and international flights, nearly every carrier now enforces a complete smoking ban, which also includes vaping and e-cigarettes. These devices were widely prohibited in 2016 due to the potential fire hazard associated with their lithium batteries.

To stay safe and avoid hefty fines, it is advisable to refrain from any form of smoking on an airplane. The FAA can impose fines of up to $25,000, as can other international agencies and governments. Even tampering with a smoke detector can result in a penalty of up to $2,000 on a U.S. airline. In January 2021, the FAA fined a passenger on an Allegiant Air flight $16,700 for allegedly smoking in the lavatory, and a $10,300 fine was proposed for a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight accused of smoking an e-cigarette that same year.

Do people still attempt to smoke on planes? More frequently than you might imagine. A flight attendant from a major U.S. airline, who requested anonymity, shared a recent incident involving a passenger on a flight from Brussels. The passenger emerged from the restroom, boldly holding a lit cigarette and attempted to dispose of it in the waste bin in the galley. The crew member promptly intervened and extinguished the cigarette in the ashtray. Fortunately for the passenger, the smoke detector did not activate, so the captain issued a warning instead of a substantial fine.

According to the flight attendant, another common occurrence is passengers mistaking the ashtray for the lavatory door handle. Passengers often reach for various closet and cabinet handles, thinking they are the restroom door. This mistake is so prevalent that some individuals have damaged the ashtray while attempting to open the door.

These incidents demonstrate the ongoing importance of ashtrays on airplanes and the need to deter passengers from attempting to smoke in violation of regulations.