All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1992

Smoking on Airplanes


Mr. Smith, a commercial pilot and retired FAA operations inspector, is a freelance writer based in Smyrna, Georgia.

Some time ago, the Federal Aviation Administration, in its infinite wisdom, banned smoking on domestic airline flights. One of the reasons given was that passive smoke is harmful, and that non-smoking persons in the close confines of an airplane cabin would suffer deleterious effects from this passive smoke. One editorial in favor of the federal regulation to ban smoking went so far as to compare an airliner cabin to a “smoke-filled bar room.”

Smoking is bad for you. Not only does the nicotine cause heart problems, but smoke in the lungs causes lesions which can result in cancer, and each cigarette depletes your body of about 25 mg of vitamin C, which, according to Dr. Linus Pauling, has been demonstrated to play a part in the prevention of cancer. So, even those of us who smoke will agree that it is dangerous, and a bad, smelly habit. And expensive. But that is not the issue here.

The issue is, should the government ban smoking on airplanes? Or in hotels? Restaurants? Any privately owned building, even your home, as some have suggested? Specifically, does the danger warrant a federal regulation to prohibit smoking on airplanes and thus subject an innocent citizen who unwittingly lights up to criminal prosecution?

Most American homes have a closed-circuit heating and air-conditioning system. Except for leaks around doors and windows, no outside air gets into the house. If there is a smoker in the house, the passive smoke stays in the house, or at least a large percentage of it does. The same situation exists in many office buildings. So the air in homes and office buildings where most of us live and work is not changed on a regular basis. But the air in an airplane cabin is. The engines suck in air and a portion of this air is bled off the compressor section of the engine and sent to the cabin heating and air-conditioning system. This clean, fresh air from the outside is not contaminated by anything. It is pumped into the cabin to pressurize the cabin, and in the process it is heated or cooled to provide a comfortable temperature in the cabin even though the outside air may be as low as seventy degrees below zero or as hot as a hundred and ten. The engines pump this air into the airplane’s pressurization/heating/air-conditioning system on a continuous basis. Even though the airliner may be flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet or higher, the engines have the capacity to pump enough air into the cabin so that the atmosphere in the cabin is generally somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, but never above 10,000 feet.

How long does it take for all of the stale air in the cabin to escape and be replaced by clean, fresh air? To answer that question, I went to the source, Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle, Washington. Prior to World War II, Boeing built the first pressurized airliner, the Boeing 307 “Stratoliner”; later the first pressurized bomber, the B-29; and in the 1950s America’s first commercial, pressurized jet airliner, the Boeing 707.

Boeing spent hours digging in their engineering files to come up with definite positive data. Thus I can report that on a Boeing 727 cruising at 35,000 feet the air in the cabin is completely exchanged for new, fresh air about every two-to-four minutes. That kind of massive air exchange does not occur in your home or in any office building that I know of.

Did the FAA not know about the air-exchange rate on airliners when they made their no smoking regulation? Did they care? The issue boils down to this: Is a federally regulated smoking ban on airliners justified on the basis of the hazard of passive smoke, based on what we know about the rate of exchange of air on a typical modern jet airliner? The data available suggest that it is not.

True, we face a danger from smoking. But we face a far greater and more long-term danger from a federal bureaucracy that promulgates regulations based on the presumption of government knows best.