People say good things come in threes, but that certainly isn’t true in the airline industry. Triple chimes in the cabin is always the harbinger of bad news – it could be an emergency call from the captain or the fire alarm. Last week, on an otherwise completely uneventful flight, I heard them.
Bing, bing, bing. The red lights flashed along with a message on the flight attendant panel: aft lavatory fire.
My coworkers in the back of the cabin scrambled to the bathroom in question, knocked on the door, and forced their way inside. The man inside had, predictably, been smoking – as was the toilet. He’d unintentionally set a momentary bonfire, which he’d managed to extinguish with a panicked flush. The blaze was set by either his cigarette or hot ash that had fallen into a mound of paper left in the toilet. When asked, he couldn’t be sure of where he’d disposed of his cigarette, and we couldn’t dismiss the possibility of a smoldering butt in a paper-filled trash bin. This resulted in a thorough search of the lavatory trash just to be sure – an undesirable task the flight attendant decided to assign to him.
I’ll never forget the first time I had to deal with smoking onboard. I was a brand-new flight attendant on one of my first flights, and I was in the cabin doing service. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me that someone was smoking in the front restroom. Several other passengers chimed in that they, too, smelled something coming from that area. My coworker and I stopped what we were doing and rushed to the front. We banged on the door, yelling in that we were about to enter. When we did, we found not one but two smokers inside, who’d apparently decided that if they were going to break one rule, might as well not stop there: the man and woman were naked from the waist down.
Besides making for needless paperwork and general unpleasantness, the risk of fire onboard is of the utmost concern to the crew. Most smokers toss the butt into the toilet, which may or may not be full of toilet paper (as above), but they even more foolishly opt for the trash bin, which of course is stuffed full of paper towels. Last year, a Monarch Airlines crew en route to Sharm El Shiekh, Egypt from Birmingham, England had to battle not one but two fires – the second of which was barely controllable – due to a drunken passenger discarding cigarettes carelessly in the trash. While this story ended well (at least for everyone who wasn’t John Cox, the passenger found guilty of this reckless stupidity), some have not. Although smoking was still allowed onboard at the time, the 1973 crash of Varig flight 820 from Rio de Janiero to Paris was said to have been caused by a cigarette in the lavatory trash bin.
But if smoking is something taken seriously by airlines, why are new airplanes outfitted with ashtrays in them, despite smoking being outlawed on airplanes since the 90’s? Isn’t it a wink and a nod inviting those wanting a sneaky puff now and then to just be discreet about it? It is, in fact, precisely the opposite – it is assumed, rather rightly, from experience, that those who are bone-headed enough to ignore the constant reminders that smoking is strongly prohibited are just as bone-headed about disposing of the evidence. The FAA requires these ashtrays as an alternative to the trash or the toilet and reduce the risk of fire. In fact, should an ashtray go missing, it is likely enough to take an otherwise perfectly good airplane out of service.
Any time a smoker is caught onboard, the crew will, after issuing the offender a stern talking-to, of course, fill out a report regarding the incident and giving the name and seat number of the offender. After that, as long as the situation doesn’t escalate into something else, there isn’t much else the crew can do, aside from keep an eye on the person to make sure he or she doesn’t try it again. (It happens much more than you’d think.) This report goes not only to the airline but to the FAA. The FAA investigates the situation and goes from there. As much as we would like to know how the story ends, the fine issued or other course of legal action taken is information we aren’t privy to. The maximum penalty for smoking is $25,000, however it is said that penalties of any weight are rarely levied, which would be shameful if true. Reportedly a passenger walked away with just a $50 fine for taking two smoke breaks on a flight from Tampa to Milwaukee in 2011. Passengers who violate rules like these tend not to be the types who just couldn’t bear the weight of their addiction a moment longer. Rather, they are the ones who are often defiant and disruptive, whose behavior is purposely and willfully negligent. A $50 fine for this person probably still makes for a great story over beers with his buddies.
Thankfully smoking is something that doesn’t happen too frequently onboard, but as long as there are smokers, there will be people who think they can get away with a sneaky puff or two. It rarely works, since the bathroom will smell like it, as will the offender, and fellow passengers are always quick to alert us. In such a contained environment, you’d have to completely lack an olfactory nerve to miss it. Smoking onboard is so much more than a nuisance – it really is the selfish risk of a whole lot of lives Those three chimes in the cabin are much easier to cause than you’d think.