For a seat in nonsmoking section on your next flight, get there early

If you don't smoke and are in the habit of arriving at the airport two minutes before the plane departs -- leaping over turnstiles and careening down the boarding ramp -- don't expect to have a nonsmoking seat waiting for you on board.

Until recently, passengers could have insisted that the airline extend the nonsmoking area, forbidding smokers around them to light up. That policy, which airlines say has caused flight delays and friction among passengers, is being abolished by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in an effort to weed out "excessive" government regulation.

The new policy, implemented to ease confusion during the air controllers strike and awaiting formal approval, still requires separate seating for smokers and nonsmokers. But airlines now are permitted to establish an early check-in time for passengers who want to be guaranteed a nonsmoking seat. Trans World Airlines and United Airlines have implemented a 10-minute "close out" time for guaranteed nonsmoking seating. But most other nationwide airlines contacted said they will not require advanced arrival, because even late boarders usually can be accommodated without too much trouble. Passengers should ask about an airline's policy when making reservations.

In addition, other new regulations strongly supported by tobacco interests have been implemented; but so far they have not had a drastic effect on airline policy. A previous ban on pipe and cigar smoking has been lifted, but the major domestic airlines say they will continue the ban. also axed is the provision prohibiting nonsmoking passengers from being "unreasonably burdened" by wafting smoke -- a phrase no one could seem to agree on anyway.

CAB attorney David Schaeffer insists the small changes are not the opening wedge in an eventual elimination of all smoking restriction on airlines. The Move is designed "to ease the burden on airlines rather than to accommodate smokers," he says.

Oppossition to the CAB move comes from the powerful Washington-based antismoking group, Action for Smoking and Health (ASH). ASH executive director John F. Banzhaf III says for one thing, the laws governing "drifting tobacco smoke" allowed his group to pressure airlines into altering their seating arrangements so that smokers were not placed across the aisle from nonsmokers.

"Now, even it the air is filled with a haze of blue smoke," he says, "there's nothing you can do about it, if you're in the area designated nonsmoking."

Mr. Banzhaf also is concerned about proper ventilation on aircraft. A previous CAB rule prohibited all smoking on airplanes when the ventilation systems were not fuly functioning. That regulation has been abolished, he says, at a time when many airlines are dropping back to two-thirds of their ventilation capacity as a cost-cutting measure.

Even among smokers there is still overwhelming support for divided seating on airplanes, according to a survey by the 100,000-member Airline Passengers' Association (APA). Nearly a third of the members questioned (smokers and nonsmokers) favored a ban on in-flight smoking, according to spokeswoman Janet Aynes.

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