Smoke-free planes

THE plane has been loaded with waiting passengers. There are no seats to spare. The door is closed. The engines whine into action. The voice of a stewardess crackles over the public-address system: ``Due to the large number of passengers requiring seats in the nonsmoking section, this whole flight will be a nonsmoking flight. No smoking will be allowed.''

The passengers - or at least most of them - break into spontaneous cheers and applause.

It is a scene being reenacted more and more these days as nonsmokers stake out their claim to sit in a smoke-free environment. Nonsmokers are a clear majority. And when the configuration of seats makes it impossible to demarcate clearly between smoking and nonsmoking sections, nonsmokers carry the day: The whole aircraft is ruled to be a nonsmoking flight.

Smokers are fighting a vigorous, but apparently rear-guard and losing, battle, at least on flights of short duration.

Air Canada, the first airline in North America to go all nonsmoking on certain flights, has been experimenting for three months on its flights out of New York to Canada. Smoking is barred completely on these flights, which last for about an hour and 15 minutes. During the trial period, Air Canada surveyed passengers on these flights. Some 96 percent of them approved and would continue to fly with Air Canada on nonsmoking flights.

As an Air Canada spokesman told me: ``We had to keep an eye on the bottom line. If sales had gone down on the nonsmoking flights, we might have had to reconsider. But sales, in fact, went up.''

Air Canada has for some time barred smoking on a number of its domestic flights of less than two hours' duration. But going nonsmoking out of New York was somewhat adventurous. On that route the Canadians go head to head with American airlines that continue mixed flights - flights with sections for both smokers and nonsmokers.

The Air Canada spokesman says, however, the line is heartened by the success on the flights out of New York and is eyeing other routes for all nonsmoking flights. Prime candidates, says the spokesman, are flights out of Boston to Toronto and Halifax.

Of course, Air Canada still maintains mixed smoking and nonsmoking flights on some of its routes, and on all its flights lasting more than two hours.

If the Canadians can introduce, and make profit on, nonsmoking flights, where stand United States airlines? They are reluctant to follow the Canadian example. They want to maintain smoking and nonsmoking sections on their aircraft and do not think it economic to make even some flights all nonsmoking on a regular basis.

The US Congress has entered the fray, however. The House has voted, by a narrow margin, to ban smoking on flights of less than two hours. The Senate has yet to weigh in, but members of both the House and the Senate are under extreme pressure from the tobacco lobby not to take such action.

Key legislators from tobacco-growing states are working hard to kill the proposed law. Prominent among them is Sen. Jesse Helms, representing the tobacco state of North Carolina.

But the antismoking forces are pouring on the pressure themselves. Various consumer groups are lobbying, using diverse arguments. Some base their campaign on health grounds, reasoning that tobacco smoke is injurious. Many flight attendants are supporting this claim. The government, as distinct from Congress, has not so far injected itself into the debate. But as the arguments swirl on all sides, the opinion of air travelers may be the deciding factor - air travelers who just find all that smoke noxious.

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