Does inflight smoking make you a criminal?

Does inflight smoking make you a criminal?

The prohibition of smoking inside commercial planes has its origins in two legally protected rights: the first one is the passenger and onboard personnel’s health and wellbeing; given that carbon monoxide produced by cigarettes has unhealthy effects in a closed environment. The second is the fact that the operational safety is negatively affected by technical issues related to the pressurization system and the possibility of ignition.

The first normative recommendation was given by the FAA in August of 1974, when the prohibition of smoking inside aircraft lavatories was instituted (given the possibility of a fire starting), the inadequate disposal of still lit cigarettes, which are capable of bursting into flames, or smoking materials that are dropped on top of dry toilet paper or in the hand towel receptacles, or bathroom garbage cans were often confused with the stainless steel cover of an ashtray.

This rule evolved with several amendments made by the FAA themselves,  through the installation of signs on each side of the bathroom door (or adjacent) and to each side of the toilets, with text and symbols that would indicate the prohibition of smoking inside the stall.

Even though this norm comes from the US government and is obligatory for planes that are built and designed in that country, and not in Europe, the European Union through the AESA (State Agency of Air Security, in Spanish) has adopted the same measures on its rulebook.

That’s how we got to the prohibition of smoking inside airplanes, that operates under the rules of the FAA and its equivalent in the European Union and, between them, 83% of the world’s commercial Air Navigation is regulated. Because of the internationality and uniformity of aviation law, it has later been adopted by the national rulings of Latin American countries, the first of them being Colombia, with a resolution founded upon the fact that this is not only a healthy measure, but it also contributes to onboard safety, since cigarette smoke can affect the non-smoking portion of the crew and this represents a risk for air safety. The Argentinian Civil Aviation regulations also adopted the prohibition.

no smoking sign_aviation law_shahram shirkhani
Image courtesy of Jamie McCaffrey at

One of the most common sources of intoxication by carbon monoxide on an aircraft is cigarette smoke. Said smoke has approximately 3% of carbon monoxide, while the smoke of a cigar contains between 5 to 8%. The effect of monoxide can diminish ocular sensitivity and night vision by up to 20%. Tests have shown that carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke can diminish the tolerance of the pilot to heights from 1800 – 1500m.

So the motivation for this regulation is double: One is related to health, contributing to reduce the catastrophic number of deaths caused by tobacco in all of its manifestation that, according to the World Health Organization, is of more than 3 million people every year.  The other one is related to safety, as long as the attention capacity of the crew is not altered and their oxygen levels are not affected, since it is already limited as a consequence of the flight itself. Even though the cabin is pressurized, the characteristics of the breathable air are similar to those between 1800 to 2300 meters above sea level.

As a consequence of the already universal ban on smoking on a plane, several airlines maintain the “no smoking” sign permanently, but as a marketing tool they sell smokeless cigarettes which respect the norm and it’s not necessary to light them up, since they send a small amount of nicotine to the body through inhalation, while giving the feel of a real cigarette. These are not toxic and they’re harmless for the user and the people around them.

In July of 1973 a Boeing aircraft that was on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris had more than 100 passengers aboard. As it was approaching the Parisian airport, the crew noted that the fire alarms were triggered, and the crew members, fire extinguishers in hand, followed the procedures to overcome the incident as they tried to locate the origin of the smoke that would increasingly invade the passenger cabin. The source of the fire was not found and the passengers succumbed to panic and the toxic smoke affected gravely the possibility for them to continue breathing normally.

The smoke reached the control cabin and the pilots decided to make an off-track emergency landing. This maneuver was accomplished without any further consequences in spite of having hit several trees on its final trajectory. The technical crew managed to get out the front door, but unfortunately the passengers didn’t have this opportunity and all of them, except for one survivor, passed away by asphyxiation. As a result, this accident left 123 dead people and only 11 survivors. The French authorities investigated the accident and concluded that the main cause of the accident was a passenger going to smoke inside the lavatory and threw the still lit cigarette in the trash can, which was full of toilet paper, and it originated a fire that got out of control.

This is only one of the cases that led to a worldwide ban on inflight smoking. It is possible to conclude that the accidents are produced when the defenses of the systems that prevent those accidents are broken in relation to three fundamental aspects: the technological, whenever there are flaws in spite of the most sensitive instruments being duplicated or triplicated; the instructional, a lack of an adequate response from the pilots and/or the air transit system when facing an incident, despite their training, which involves contingencies of different gravity and their ways of affronting them; and the regulatory, every time the procedures are not carefully monitored by the pilots and, according to the case that we mentioned before, by the passengers, the instructions and the prohibitions such as refraining from using electronic devices during lift off and landing operations and the prohibition of smoking inside the aircraft’s lavatories. That being said, the value of security on civil aviation is much more rigid and has greater levels of exigence than those of terrestrial transportation, since a flying aircraft does not have the same escape way and it represents a situation far from the protective action of state institutions and security forces.


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