It’s been 25 years since the first smoking bans were introduced on flights. So why do airlines still helpfully provide the means for disposing of cigarettes?
The design of aeroplanes is intended to strip out everything unnecessary. Each and every additional gramme of weight expends extra fuel during flights, so the interiors are meticulously designed in order to be free of extraneous stuff.
Except for one curious thing: the ashtrays. I had always assumed that ashtrays on planes were just left over from older models, but the more I travelled on brand new planes, the more I realised they are still a permanent fixture. And that’s despite the first smoking bans on planes being rolled out almost 25 years ago. No major airline still allows smoking on board, yet there are ashtrays on the outside of toilet doors and on the inside of toilet doors. On every plane that’s made. It’s a standard design that you’re probably familiar with – aluminium, with an inscribed cigarette.
It flips out at the top. The manufacturers have, however, abandoned the ashtrays that used to be positioned at the end of the arm rests, which I, like many others, always found useful for disposing of chewing gum. The response received from the airlines when questioned as to why this feature has survived, like some residual mammalian tail, is really quite odd. The ashtrays are there, they say, because people still smoke on planes. Regardless.
Despite the announcements, despite the smoke alarms, despite the $5,000 fines and the threat of being hauled off a flight by armed guards, people still light up. So planes need ashtrays, otherwise passengers might stuff burning stubs into bins for paper towels. And we know what that leads to. A fire in July 1973 on a Boeing 707 run by Brazilian airline Varig, in which 123 people died as a result of smoke inhalation and the subsequent crash landing, is thought to have been caused by a cigarette thrown into a bin in a rear lavatory.
The question, it seems to me, is whether the continued presence of ashtrays in aeroplane toilets encourages smoking. Is there a little shelf for putting your handguns while you drop your pants? Foot rests for those extra-heavy shoe bombs? Additional seat-belt material for tying up hostages? No. Because they would suggest that kind of behaviour is fine. On the other hand, perhaps there would be a market for a smoking, fuggy, gun-toting, hard-drinking retro plane. That would be an intriguing design job. And those ashtrays would, finally, fulfil their purpose.