Washington — A cloud of doubt hang over a nonsmoker's right to segregated seating on commercial flights. In a surprise move, the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) announced plans to give airlines more flexibility in arranging smoking and nonsmoking sections. And next spring, the CAB qill consider whether to end all rules that now atempt to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke in aircraft.
Even without such action, the CAB itself will be dismantled as early as 1982 under government deregulation, taking many passenger protections with it.
Ironically, the US airline industry was the first battleground for nonsmokers' rights a decade ago, and not it is the first testing ground for government deregulation that could bring an end to those rights.
Still, Congress could simply transfer the CAB's auhority on smoking over to another agency, such as the US Department of Transportation, something that US lawmakers did not consider in 1978 when they ordered the phased ending of federal controls over airline routes and fares.
Although the CAB's demise was not scheduled until 1985, the Carter administration was aiming for 1983.And now advisers to President-elect Ronald Reagan are suggesting early 1982.
"We're in the process of finally looking at the end of the CAB," says commissioner Elizabeth E. Bailey. But, she adds, smoking is one consumer issue that will likely continue to be regulated.
Anticipating the demise of the CAB, the baord reopened the question of smoking on board aircraft, calling for ideas from the airlines that could be tried as alternatives to the present front-and-back splitting of smokers and nonsmokers.
"We're banking on the airlines to be more imaginative than the CAB," says Pat Kennedy, agency policy planning chief.
Already considered, but not widely supv ported, are such actions as all-smoking or all-nonsmoking flights, special ventilated sections for passengers who are sensitive to tobacco smoke, or buffer zones between smokes and nonsmokers for passengers who do not care where they sit.
"In an environment where the airlines can be more competitive, we hope they can have more ideas to help the nonsmoker," says commissioner Bailey.