It's been decades since you could smoke on flights — remember, it was permitted back in a time when flights were distinctly shorter and way more glamorous — so why are there still ashtrays on display away in each lavatory?
Look, we all know that smoking is banned because the flight crew reminds us on the overhead sound system constantly, and because there are no-smoking signs lit up above nearly every row of seats. And because smoking is just over.
But of course it wasn't always like that: Long-time travelers may be unlucky enough to remember airplanes full of smoke from fellow passengers. Planes once had separate sections for non-smoking and for smoking — United Airlines was the first to do this — because smoking was totally legal (and not even frowned upon) on airplanes until it was banned by most airlines.
When smoking was banned it on domestic flights within the U.S., it started with just flights under two hours; after all, people could go that long without lighting up. A New York Times story written in 1988 attempts to forecast whether the ban will ever extend to flights longer than two hours. Which, of course — we know how that went.
Smoking was prohibited primarily because of the new information on second-hand smoke. It wasn't until 2000 that smoking was banned on all domestic and international flights in and out of the U.S. — and that really doesn't seem like that long ago.
Sara Nelson, the President of the Association of Flight Attendants, was a flight attendant in 1996 when people still smoked on International flights; the flight attendants union fought for it to be banned as it was a workplace health issue. In the New York Times, Nelson said that desperate people on long-haul flights still try to sneak a cigarette and the worry is they will put it in the trash or down the sink to hide it, therefore starting a fire. That very thing happened on Varig Flight 820, which had to crash land, but not before almost everyone on board perished from smoke inhalation.
That leads us to the answer to our question. Ashtrays remain in place in case there is that person with enormous chutzpah and total disregard for the law. There needs to be a safe place for that person to put out the cigarette, according to Travel + Leisure: "Ashtrays are actually part of the Federal Aviation Administration's minimum equipment list — in order to fly, an airplane must have an ashtray."
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