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Why Do Airplanes Still Have Ashtrays in the Lavatories?

In the late 1960s, consumer activist Ralph Nader campaigned against cigarette smoking on commercial airlines, and Pan Am, TWA, and United grudgingly obliged in the next couple of years by creating non-smoking sections. Smoking was banned on domestic U.S. flights of two hours or less in 1988, and nearly all airplanes were smoke-free by 1990. So why, you may ask, are there ashtrays in the lavatories of modern airplanes? “One of the concerns during the fight to ban smoking was that people would still sneak a cigarette,” explains Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “And without ashtrays, they wouldn't have a safe place to put it out.”

What part of "no smoking" don't you understand?

  • Ashtrays are required because of a 1995 FAA regulation that reads: “Regardless of whether smoking is allowed in any other part of the airplane, lavatories must have self-contained, removable ashtrays located conspicuously on or near the entry side of each lavatory door.”

  • In 1973, Varig Flight 820 crashed during a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. A cigarette had been tossed into a bathroom trash receptacle, and fire engulfed the cabin of the Boeing 707. The plane crashed and 123 people died.

  • There have been some notable smokers who have broken the "no smoking" rules in the air -- from the late singer Amy Winehouse getting caught in 2007 to a Qatari diplomat setting off a plane’s smoke alarms in 2010.

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