Those of us of a certain age will remember a time when air travel was a pleasure – an integral part of the excitement of going to a new destination. Check-in was fast and easy; I never used to get to the airport until about half an hour before the flight was due to leave. At the check-in desk, you would be asked “Smoking or non-smoking?” when being assigned a seat. In the departure lounge there was invariably a small (overpriced) café where you could grab a coffee or a beer which you could then sit and enjoy with a cigarette while waiting to board. Once airborne, drinks were always free and in plentiful supply, the food was served on proper plates with proper cutlery, and of course if you’d opted for the ‘smoking’ section at the back, you could enjoy a postprandial cigarette with your wine. It was civilised and enjoyable.
My first experience of flying was actually a bit out of the ordinary, I suppose. It was 1970, and I was in Pakistan again; in Peshawar, having just come from Afghanistan, and I was on my way to Chitral, a town (village) / province north of Peshawar in the Hindu Kush. I’d been there once before, and the journey overland from Peshawar had been arduous, to say the least. You could get a bus as far as Dir, but from there it was four-wheel drive only, and then not always. The favoured vehicles were old Willys Jeeps, and they’d load baggage up to the bars that originally supported the canvas cover, and then a dozen or so passengers would pile on top, or cling to the back or sides.
The road (goat track) wound its way tenuously round the mountains, barely managing to cling to the precipitous mountainside, and was brutally rough and sometimes partly washed away. On a couple of occasions we hit patches where more than half the road had collapsed. We were on the side of a mountain, with a sheer drop of thousands of feet on one side, and a sheer cliff on the other. All there was to substitute for the road was a long piece of tree trunk, like a telegraph pole, spanning the space that used to be road. To me, it looked like an impossible situation, there only being a narrow strip of road still attached to the mountain. Visions of reversing back for miles filled my brain with nightmarish scenarios.
The locals, however, were unfazed. Everyone dismounted, all the luggage was taken out, and a couple of stout poles a bit longer than the width of the Jeep unstrapped from the side, passed under the vehicle to locate in a no doubt dedicated socket somewhere under the floor, and then a few guys got on the end of each pole and walked across the tree trunk, supporting that side of the Jeep as the driver drove the other side over the remains of the road on the cliff side. It was all done with quite military efficiency. The luggage was reloaded, everyone jumped back on board, and off we went again. The whole operation took less than thirty minutes.
But entertaining diversions aside, it was still about eight hours of bone jarring lumps and bumps, with the added frisson of uncertainty and growing awareness of mortality as you squeezed along the very edge of what looked like a bottomless abyss, the dislodged stones disappearing into the depths with nary a sound. And if you could see the bottom, you could usually spot a dead jeep or two, lying crumpled like pieces of discarded brown wrapping paper at the base of the precipice.
It was an interesting journey, but not one that I was particularly keen to repeat.
So I went to the PIA (Pakistan International Airways) office in town and enquired about the scheduled weekly flight to Chitral. Oh yes, there was one due to leave in a couple of days, and the price was affordable (just).
However, I was informed that only about one flight in ten actually made it, and most of the others were either cancelled or aborted due to weather conditions on Lowry Top. The problem was that the runway in Chitral was small, and a Fokker Friendship was the biggest plane it could accommodate. However, Lowry Top, the pass it had to fly over, was at the upper limits of the Fokker Friendship’s operating altitude, so only if the weather conditions were benign did the flight make it. In fact a few years earlier, the King of Chitral (it was a semi-autonomous principality back then) had apparently insisted that his flight should cross Lowry Top when the weather wasn’t good, and the plane was lost, along with the King, his retinue and the crew.
So anyway, a couple of days later I dutifully turned up at the airport to see what my chances of flying were.
It was looking good. The weather seemed fine over the pass, and I was told that the plane would depart, and the pilot would make the final decision as he approached Lowry Top.
It was indeed a fine day, and the conditions were perfect for my first experience of flying. The FF is a small plane – I seem to remember it being not much bigger than a bus inside – and the engines made a hell of a racket. But visibility from the window was crystal clear, and I drank in the sights from above – and from the side, as we were for the most part following the valleys in-between the mountains. It seemed to me that the wingtips were almost touching the mountains either side, and I thrilled at the bird’s eye view I was seeing for the first time.
It really was the most exhilarating introduction to air travel one could ask for, and sparked my enthusiasm for this (unfortunately in those days rather expensive) mode of travel.
Since then, and particularly since the eighties, I’ve done quite a lot of travelling by air, and until the late 90s still really enjoyed the actual air travel bit as much as the destination I was heading for. It was part of the fun of the trip.
But then, during the 1990s, the anti-smoking cadre decided that they would take the pleasure out of flying for people that smoked. They used their usual ‘salami-slice’ tactics, starting with demanding that short (less than two hours) domestic flights should be non-smoking. Once they had managed to bully that first step through, it was easy going for them. They had established a precedent, and it was just a case of nagging, the deployment of junk science (something they had become experts at), and a ‘slowly-slowly-catchee-monkey’ approach of ratcheting up the restrictions bit by bit until the ban was worldwide and total.. They met with little resistance from the airline companies, because those companies realised they could save money, both in cleaning time (no ashtrays to empty) and in being able to recycle a much higher percentage of cabin air during the flight:
With newer air engines (and higher fuel prices), the cost of providing fresh air to passengers has increased — and now passengers get less fresh air than before. This would have been difficult to do if smoking had not been banned on planes.Some estimate that to provide passengers with 100% fresh (rather than recycled) air could add 12 cents per passenger per hour to cost.
Plus not having to clean / change the cabin air filters so often.
And as far as the travelling public were concerned, it was the old trick of dropping the frog into cold water and gradually bringing it to the boil. Nobody really noticed until it was too late.
So, as seems to be the norm these days, the shrill whining of the anti-tobacco lobby won the day, and now smoking is banned on all flights wordwide.
I think I must have taken one of the last flights that allowed smoking when I flew with Aeroflot from London to Bangkok in 2002. They were probably the last major airline to allow smoking, but their inflight magazine at the time was announcing that the airline would shortly operate a non-smoking policy. In fact I only chose the Aeroflot option because they still had a smoking section. Their reputation was pretty poor, and not without reason, as I discovered.
It was quite the worst experience of flying I’ve ever had. I understand that they now have a new fleet, but the planes I flew in on the Moscow – Bangkok – Moscow legs were ready for the scrap heap. The plane (a 747) on the way back had foam poking out of the seat cushions where the fabric had worn away, the plastic covers over the reclining mechanisms were broken and jagged, the carpet was sticky from having had so much beer spilled on it and never having been cleaned, and the whole interior was filthy. The food was inedible, and the cabin crew were unpleasant, unhelpful and aggressive.
But the passengers in the smoking section were great fun. It was like a party going on at the back of the plane, which always tended to be the case when smoking sections were the norm. I remember reading a ‘letter to the editor’ in the Daily Telegraph back when they were increasingly banning smoking on all flights, from a frequent flyer, who wrote that he didn’t smoke, but that he always booked a seat in the smoking section because the people back there were so much friendlier, and it made the flight much more pleasurable. He said the passengers in the non-smoking section tended to be tight-lipped and uptight. A generalisation, I know, but in my experience smokers as a rule are inclined to be more sociable and gregarious than non-smokers.
Nowadays, with the intrusive theatre of ‘security’, the lack of decent (if any) provision for smokers in most airports, and a total ban on smoking in planes, flying has become something to be endured rather than enjoyed, which is a great shame.
I’m not sure why it is that the airport authorities in so many airports have taken it upon themselves to make life so very difficult for twenty plus percent of their customers. Even here in Greece, which has a very relaxed attitude to smoking, in Athens airport once you get airside in departures, there are no smoking areas whatsoever. None. Nada. And nearly 40% of Greeks are smokers. Why would they do that? There’s no good reason not to have smoking lounges near all departure gates, for the comfort and convenience of their customers. Is there some sort of EU regulation about it?
Similarly, I read somewhere that before smoking was banned on all airlines, the USA decided not to allow smoking airlines to land in the US or overfly US airspace. (Well, you gotta think of the children™, doncha!) I’m not sure about that one though, as I read it on an air-travel forum somewhere. Can anyone confirm?
It’s a similar story at Bangkok Don Muang (which is mostly domestic flights) airport. A few years ago, when they re-opened Don Muang as the domestic terminal, each of the concourses with departure gates had a smoking room. Quite large and quite comfortable. And there were always people using them. When I went through DM this year, all those smoking rooms had been locked, and stood empty, with just an intermittent trickle of people going to the door and trying to open it, reading the ‘closed’ signs, cursing and going away. There is now no provision whatsoever for smokers after passing through security. Now what good reason did they have for closing those rooms?
And in Suvarnabhumi, which is the international airport for Bangkok, you need to be a super sleuth to find out where to smoke airside in departures, as the couple of smoking rooms are mostly unsigned, and tucked away in places that you wouldn’t normally go. The only reason I know they exist is because I Googled it.
Some fifteen years ago I was on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Adelaide – quite a long flight – eight or nine hours on the first leg, if I remember, and the flight stopped in Melbourne for a couple of hours to drop off passengers and refuel before continuing to Adelaide. I disembarked in Melbourne to stretch my legs and find somewhere to smoke a cigarette. There was nowhere. I asked a cleaning lady where I could go for a smoke, and she told me the whole airport was non-smoking, and anyone caught would get a $600 fine. WTF? And that, as I say, was fifteen years ago!
Why is it that airports generally (not all) are so smoker-unfriendly? In the budgetary scheme of international airports, the cost of providing well ventilated smoking rooms is a drop in the ocean, so cost isn’t a factor. The only conclusion I can come to is that they are under pressure from external bodies.
It’s quite breathtaking how the malevolent influence of Tobacco Control has infiltrated even airports, where ‘customer satisfaction’ is supposedly a priority. Only a priority where non-smokers are concerned, it would seem.
Ten or eleven years ago, a German businessman wanted to start a new airline called ‘Smintair’ flying from Dusseldorf in Germany to Nagoya in Japan (or Frankfurt – Tokyo, depending on the article you read). It was to be all business and first class, and all seats were ‘smoking’. There was to be no ‘non-smoking’ section. Apparently the guy had backers and landing slots and was negotiating the purchase of two 747s from SAA, which would be reconfigured to carry 138 passengers instead of the normal 400 – 500. Prices would be the same as business and 1st class on the other major carriers. There was a fair bit of publicity about it at the time, but then it just dropped off the map. I’ve done some looking on Google, and although I found quite a few links about the proposed airline (this one’s in German, but Google translate does a reasonable job) there seems to be nothing about why it never got off the ground. If anyone has any info on that, I’d be most interested. The only reference I came across was that the bank pulled out at the last minute, but no details as to why. Yet on the (translated) link above, it says:
“The financing of the whole project was ensured. A Swiss consortium has committed 80 million euros. In addition, Schoppmann was in talks with financial investors from Abu Dhabi, who had proposed between 150 and 750 million euros – against a corresponding stake in the Smint holding company. “Getting investors was the easiest thing in the world,” says Schoppmann.“
More skulduggery from Tobacco Control, perhaps? I’d love to know.