How to reduce fire dangers on planes

By , William N. Plymat, chairman emeritus of Preferred Risk Insurance Company, is a member of the US Commission on Drunk Driving.

Investigators may finally conclude that an electrical short and not a carelessly discarded cigarette caused the fire in the Air Canada jet earlier this month. But still there is a severe fire danger to the public from the combination of smoking and drinking on planes.

In the past few months a number of new bars have been constructed on concourses at the Chicago airport and I have observed many persons drinking before boarding planes. It may be true elsewhere. I've seen such a new bar in the Des Moines airport.

Thus in many cases a drink or two is obtained before boarding. Then on the plane first-class passengers get offered free drinks. Rep. Charles E. Bennett, Democrat of Florida, has a bill in Congress to ban free drinks and cigarettes from airplanes (HR 54). Some years ago there was a limit of ''two drinks.'' Now attendants may refuse drinks only to persons who appear intoxi-cated.

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By the time lunch or dinner is served many passengers have had four or five drinks within an hour. In the air at 35,000 feet cabins are pressurized to an altitude of 6,000 to 8,000 feet and oxygen is limited so it takes longer to metabolize drinks. Some say that one drink at such altitude is equal to two on the ground at 1,000-foot altitude.

A passenger may have drinks before lunch or dinner and then have a cigarette. The passenger then goes to the restroom on the plane and remembers that a flight attendant reminded passengers at the start of the flight that smoking is not permitted in the toilet for safety reasons. And so an alcohol-impaired passenger looks for a place to drop his cigarette. And in such a case is very apt to be careless and drop it in the bin for waste paper towels.

This danger is further increased by the fact that cigarettes contain chemicals put there to keep them burning until usually they burn out in an ash tray after about 20 minutes. A bill to stop manufacturers from doing this is in Congress but appears to be locked up in a committee. Many wonder if campaign contributions to committee members from the tobacco industry have had an influence. In the New York Assembly recently such a bill passed by a vote of 123 to 13, in spite of extensive lobbying by tobacco interests, and it is hoped it will pass in their Senate.

What should be done?

The government or carriers could ban smoking and/or drinking on planes, and airports could close down their new bars. One Texas airline bans all smoking on its planes and seems to be doing well. Carriers could cut out the free drinks in first class and in several ways reduce the overall consumption on the planes.

A special reason for cutting out drinking on planes is the danger that exists in the case of crash landings. In such cases everyone is supposed to be off the plane in 90 seconds under Federal Aviation Administration rules. In the case of a packed plane there is real danger that an impaired passenger may move slowly or stumble and block aisles.

Automatic fire extinguishers and smoke detectors can be placed in all toilets on planes. And new inflammable materials can be used inside planes. Passengers can reduce their own personal risk too. They can start their flights on planes taking off early in the morning, enabling them in most cases to reach their destinations before the noon lunch period when drinking usually starts. Passengers can also advise one airline flying from St. Louis to Washington to drop its wine-tasting parties in flight. The airline serves three small glasses of different wines with refills offered to each passenger. And after that, they can buy drinks.

The public can also advise one carrier that brags about its new flying cocktail lounges on its large planes that it does not approve of this feature. And in some cases it can elect to travel on Amtrak.

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