Clearing Cabin Smoke

SOVIET citizens are relentless smokers. They light up between courses in restaurants. They smoke in elevators. They endure everything from drizzles to blizzards in order to step outside for a cigarette. But on airplanes? Nyet! In a nation not noted for its antipollution efforts, some of the cleanest air around is inside an Aeroflot airliner. Not simply on short flights, either: on all domestic flights.

Over here in the other superpower's corner, Americans are giving up smoking in droves. But the airlines, by and large, have yet to catch up.

Americans, who invented the no-smoking section on airplanes, are now busy banning smoking in offices, restaurants, and public buildings. The notion that the nonsmoking majority must simply endure the airborne residue of a smoking minority - because of some hazily defined ``freedom to smoke'' - is being scotched.

The issue, of course, extends far beyond smoking: Los Angeles is set to impose Draconian measures to deal with its smog, and some condo-dwellers in the Colorado resort community of Aspen can enjoy their fireplaces only on alternate days. The privilege of breathing clean air, it seems, is quickly turning into an absolute right.

And the airlines? Well, they're still thinking about it. All except Northwest, which to its credit has banned smoking on all its North American flights. The other airlines still cling to the letter of a year-old federal policy that bans smoking only on domestic flights of two hours or less.

That ban is set to expire next April - although, given the number of bills now before Congress to prohibit smoking on all domestic flights, it may be superseded by something tougher.

And that raises a question. Is it up to the federal government to legislate a ban? Or might this be a wonderful opportunity for the airlines to follow Northwest's policy (which, say company officials, has been very successful) and join the clean-air crowd?

One thing is clear: The wild blue yonder, for most frequent travelers, has been a whole lot more pleasant this past year. The question is, How can that newfound pleasantness be maintained?

On the one hand, nobody really wants to encourage the federal octopus to grow still more arms - hiring yet more bureaucrats, spinning out yet more paperwork, and adding yet another notch to the federal deficit.

But on the other hand, nobody wants laissez faire air. Some things, like breathing, aren't optional. And some places, like airplane cabins, don't make it easy to escape. The fact is that we've been spoiled: What we used to tolerate back when smoking was ``in'' - the secondhand unpleasantness of someone else's habit - we find appalling now that it's ``out.''

Airlines know this - and know, too, that smoking adds to their cleaning and repair bills, causes them needless difficulties in seat assignments, and (on newer planes where the cabin air is recirculated rather than vented) can't be kept in its place. This is a fine moment, then, for them to beat Congress to the punch - to prove that the private sector can both fulfill its own best interests and act for the public good.

They will, of course, have to put up with some tiresome tirades about smokers' rights - which, given the increasingly serious findings about the lethal effects of tobacco, are sounding pretty reedy these days. But they'll have three advantages that will be hard to resist: the moral high ground, the support of public opinion, and the gratitude of their paying customers. As the old song has it, ``Who could ask for anything more?''

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