In the so-called glamorous early days of air travel, an airplane cabin was filled with dressed-up passengers and a miasma of cigarette smoke. Even with smoking sections, the clouds would waft through curtains (if there were any at all) and into the nonsmoking areas. Today, things are vastly different, and smoking is prohibited everywhere in the cabin. But if smoking has been banned on flights for more than three decades, why are there still ashtrays on airplanes? Here’s the lowdown on why ashtrays still exist on aircraft and what happens when someone smokes on a plane now.
Why are there ashtrays on airplanes?
Even though smoking has been illegal for 30-plus years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still has a written rule on the books to correct for continued bad behavior. The agency’s directive requires that there be placards and repeated announcements to alert passengers to the no-smoking rule, and to remind them not to put out their butts in the bathroom—a rule prompted because fires kept erupting in lavatories.
In the same document, the FAA requires that ashtrays be installed on planes. The logic is that even though ashtrays are no longer needed at each seat (they used to be embedded in armrests), there still must be a safe place to put out a cigarette should someone illegally light up. Garbage cans and bathroom bins don’t fit the bill because something could catch on fire if the butt is not completely extinguished.
Look around on your next flight, and you’ll see that ashtrays are usually on or near the lavatory door, a requirement put in place for new or refurbished planes. Why that location? Turns out, when people daringly smoke on a plane, they usually do it in the bathroom. Not too smart, because—as just about every safety announcement says—aircraft lavatories are equipped with smoke detectors that will alert the crew.
In fact, the ashtrays are considered so important that if they’re broken or inoperable, the plane won’t be allowed to take off until they’re fixed. In airline lingo, it’s a “no-go” item (although there are some adjustments to the rule on planes that have more than one restroom and more than one ashtray).
Is smoking on a plane really a fire hazard?
Yes! There have been many incidents when cigarette flames have put an entire aircraft at risk. In the early 1970s, it is believed that a fire from a cigarette in the lavatory led to the crash of a Varig flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that killed 123 people. And in 2016, an EgyptAir flight crashed in the Mediterranean after a pilot was believed to be smoking a cigarette. Another pilot’s lit cigarette led to the crash of a US Bangla flight near Kathmandu in 2018.
When was smoking banned on flights?
The path to getting rid of cigarettes on planes was a slow one. Though airline staff had complained about the smoke for years before (among other mistreatments), Congress’s first ban was issued in 1988—but only for domestic flights that were two hours or less. In 1990, the ban extended to flights that are six hours or less. Even then, pilots were still permitted to smoke because there was concern that withdrawal symptoms could be a safety hazard.
In the USA, Delta was the first airline to voluntarily make all of its worldwide flights nonsmoking in 1995. Then in 2000, all flights within the United States, as well as those to and from the country, became officially nonsmoking. There is no overarching international body that governs all airlines and international flights, but today, nearly every carrier bans smoking completely—including vaping and e-cigarettes, which were widely prohibited in 2016 because the mechanism’s lithium batteries could overheat and cause a fire.
To be safe and smart, don’t try any type of smoking, because the FAA can impose hefty fines of up to $25,000, as can other international agencies and governments. Even tampering with a smoke detector can trigger a penalty of up to $2,000 on a U.S. airline. In January 2021, a passenger on an Allegiant Air flight was fined $16,700 by the FAA for allegedly smoking in the lavatory. And a $10,300 fine was proposed for a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight who was accused of smoking an e-cigarette that same year.
Do people still try to smoke on planes?
More than you might think. Polrit D., a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline (who asked that we withhold the airline he works for), told AFAR about a passenger on a recent flight from Brussels who came out of the lavatory into the galley boldly holding a lit cigarette and tried to throw it in the waste bin. The crew member immediately stopped him and extinguished it in the ashtray. Luckily for the passenger, the smoke detector had not been activated, so the captain chose to serve him with a warning only, rather than a steep fine.
Even more common, says the flight attendant, is when passengers confuse the ashtray for the door handle to open the lavatory. He says passengers reach for all kinds of closet and cabinet handles thinking they are the bathroom. It’s such a common mistake that some people have damaged the ashtray entirely, ripping it off, when trying to open the door.
The news is filled with other examples. In January 2021, a passenger on an Allegiant Air flight was fined $16,700 by the FAA for allegedly smoking in the lavatory. And a $10,300 fine was proposed for an Alaska Airlines passenger who was accused of smoking an e-cigarette.
Just a few months ago in June 2023, a man was caught smoking on a Ryanair flight; he was “named and shamed” to the whole plane, and then escorted off by police officers when the flight landed in Manchester, England.
In March 2023, passengers smelled cigarette smoke from the bathroom on an Air India flight bound for Delhi. The culprit was caught and handed over to the police when they landed.
Vapers have also caused a few problems: The FAA reports that in 2022, electronic smoking devices were the leading cause of lithium battery incidents involving smoke, fire, or extreme heat on airplanes. They even made a handy infographic on how to avoid vape battery explosions.
So to avoid any trouble, fines, or explosions, do yourself and your fellow passengers a favor—wait until you’re off the plane to have a smoke.