New airline for nonsmoking passengers claims a successful takeoff

One of the odder quirks of airline deregulation has been the creation of an airline for nonsmokers. Set up in July to take tobaccoless customers on the 50 -minute hop between Dallas and Houston, Muse Airlines is already touting its success.

Others are not so sure. Muse boasts a 44 percent load factor after only three months of operation, compared with Braniff's 50 percent load factor for the same route. But A lan Pollack, spokesman for the Civil Aeronautics Board, thinks Muse will have to pull up that figure to ''70 percent before you'll find other airlines copying them.''

Shutting out the smoking part of the market seems ''unnecessary'' to most airlines, says Mr. Pollack. But Lamar Muse, chairman of Muse Air Corporation, thinks his new airline will appeal to smokers and nonsmokers alike. ''If you can sit in church for an hour without smoking every Sunday,'' he feels, ''you can sit on my airline.''

In fact, a marketing survey done for Muse showed passengers preferring the nonsmoking section on short hops by 5 to 1, says a Muse spokesman. Mr. Pollack emphasizes that these are ''Muse figures, and no one else's.''

He concedes, however, that there are more nonsmoking than smoking passengers in today's market. ''Three years ago, when the CAB required that a certain percent of the plane be given to nonsmoking passengers, we asked them to set aside 60 percent,'' he reports.

The nonsmoking ruling has undergone several mutations since then, with the latest made official Oct. 16. As it now reads, nonsmokers must be granted a seat in the nonsmoking section if - and only if - they arrive at the airport at the airline's declared check-in time. Nonsmoking passengers who arrive at the last minute may find themselves surrounded by smokers, under this ruling.

Even a guaranteed seat in the nonsmoking section does not guarantee freedom from smoke, as Mr. Pollack points out, and ''situations have occurred which no one should have to go through.''

Mr. Pollack contends that the smoking issue ''has no middle ground. When you put smokers and nonsmokers in an aluminum tube at 30,000 feet, there is no room for reasonable discussion.''

Muse Airlines' approach eliminates the need for these discussions, and the concept of declaring certain flights as nonsmoking ''has been around for a few years. Occasionally people talk about making nonsmoking shuttle flights,'' says Mr. Pollack.

He cautions that ''right now, the airlines are just trying to get back on their feet and serve the widest possible market - they're not about to shut out smokers.''

Muse, meanwhile, is ''happy with our success so far'' and plans to expand to 24 markets, including Atlanta and Chicago, over the next few years.

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