In-Flight Smokes Entice Hundreds 20 Years After Ban

Passengers smoke on U.S. jetliners at least twice a week, according to authorities, breaking the law without creating an international incident like an episode this week.

The Federal Aviation Administration has brought 696 cases, some for civil fines of thousands of dollars, against people caught smoking aboard airliners in the last five years, said Diane Spitaliere, an agency spokeswoman. Lighting a cigarette on a plane has been banned for 20 years.

“People do not always act in a rational or sane manner,” said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. “With air marshals on planes and other new rules, there are still folks trying to beat the system.”

Carriers don’t have data on how often passengers attempt a smoke, though “these events still do happen,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association trade group in Washington.

“When crew members find you smoking, you are reported, and they turn you over to authorities,” said Castelveter, whose group’s members include Delta Air Lines Inc., AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and Southwest Airlines Co.

The implications of trying to enjoy a cigarette onboard were brought into focus April 7, when a diplomat from Qatar allegedly attempted to do so on a United Airlines flight.

Fighter Escort

Mohammed Al-Madadi, who helps manage the Qatar embassy in Washington, was smoking in the lavatory, said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. When a flight attendant confronted him, he said he burned plastic on his sandal to mask the smell, the official said.

The comments were interpreted as threatening, and two fighter jets were scrambled to escort the flight of the UAL Corp. unit to Denver.

Al-Madadi was released from custody yesterday, said Alison Bradley, a spokeswoman for the embassy. The diplomat is going back to Qatar because he lost his ability to function effectively after the incident, a U.S. official said.

While most FAA cases against smokers aren’t posted publicly, one of the few that is shows the agency sought a $3,300 penalty in 2004 against a Scottsdale, Arizona, woman.

According to the agency’s complaint, the woman “went to the lavatory and smoked a cigarette” on a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Las Vegas. While the complaint described it as a Southwest flight, Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for the airline, said in an e-mailed statement that it has never served Newark and the “reference to Southwest Airlines in this narrative is inaccurate.”

Since 1990

The woman said in a letter that she and “one of my girlfriends went to the bathroom together, entering into a cloud of smoke, so we quickly fixed our lipstick and returned to our seats.” Her response, included in a federal regulatory docket, also said, “We insisted that we did not do it.”

The woman later withdrew her request for a hearing on the matter before an administrative law judge. The disposition of the case hasn’t been made public.

The FAA’s Spitaliere said she didn’t immediately have records on how many of the 696 cases resulted in fines or were dismissed.

The smoking ban took effect in 1990 aboard U.S. flights, and the agency extended it to international trips starting in 1996, said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman.

Northwest Airlines, which has since become part of Delta, voluntarily imposed a smoking ban more than a year before the 1990 law took effect, said Douglas R. Laird, who was the carrier’s security chief at the time.

Smoke Detectors

“It helped our business,” as both non-smoking and smoking passengers said they appreciated the clearer cabin air, said Laird, now president of the Laird & Associates Inc. consultancy in Reno, Nevada.

“In the first year or two there were quite a few incidents” of people trying to smoke, Laird said. “They would sneak a smoke in the lavatory until it became clear it wasn’t tolerated and you could get arrested. Incidents went way down.”

Smoke detectors, which the FAA requires in all aircraft lavatories, alert flight crews to would-be violators. Even that doesn’t stop all would-be violators, said John Eakin, whose Air Data Research in Helotes, Texas, collects air safety data.

“There’s a reason it’s against the law to tamper with smoke detectors in the lavatory,” Eakin said. “People must have tried it.”

(Southwest says it wasn’t airline identified by FAA in 11th paragraph of story published April 9.)
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.