Today I Learned: Why Airplane Bathrooms Still Have Ashtrays

Go into a bathroom on an airplane and you may find something quite odd looking back at you. It may look something like the following picture:

No Smoking On Airplanes Logo

Wait, what? Your eyes aren't deceiving you, there really is an ashtray under a no smoking sign in an airplane bathroom. Why would they provide an ashtray if smoking is banned on flights? Does it all seem a bit pointless to you? Well as it turns out, it’s not as stupid as it sounds.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a commercial airline anywhere in the world that still allows smoking on board. The FAA in the USA has banned smoking on domestic flights since 1990, with an international flight ban following not long after. In the UK, British Airways kicked off a ban on smoking on all their flights in 1990; Virgin and United Airlines quickly followed suit. Depending on the country and aviation authority governing your flight, you can face stiff fines and even criminal charges if you're caught smoking on a flight. Despite airlines taking a dim view towards those who can’t wait a few hours to have a cigarette when they land at their destination, ashtrays are still installed on new planes as standard. This is thanks to the rules of the FAA and CAA (the UK Civil Aviation Authority), with the FA issuing the following regulation:

"installation of placards prohibiting smoking in the lavatory and disposal of cigarettes in the lavatory waste receptacles; establishment of a procedure to announce to airplane occupants that smoking is prohibited in the lavatories; installation of ashtrays at certain locations; and repetitive inspections to ensure that lavatory waste receptacle doors operate correctly".

The ashtrays are installed because the authorities believe that, no matter how many times people are warned not to smoke once they're on the airplane, there will always be someone who does anyway. The bathrooms on airplanes are, of course, fitted with smoke detectors. If someone ignores the rules and decides to light up anyway, the smoke alarm will detect their actions and the flight crew will be alerted. When the flight crew come banging on the bathroom door, people could panic and throw the cigarette in the bin without putting it out properly, and if an ashtray wasn't installed anyway there's a higher chance that throwing it in the bin on top of the waste paper already in there could cause a fire. So, in the interests of in-flight safety, it’s required for airplanes to have ashtrays just in case someone is stupid enough to ignore the rules.

Varig Flight 820 Logo

If you think a simple cigarette can’t bring down a plane then you should take a look at the case of Varig Flight 820. On 11 July 1973 a Boeing 707 on the way to Orly Airport in France had to make an emergency landing in a field. The crew had reported that a fire had started in a rear lavatory of the plane, with the probable cause being a still lit cigarette causing the contents of a bin to catch fire. By the time that the crew had moved towards the front of the airplane and the emergency exit, many of the passengers had already inhaled smoke. Due to this the majority of the passengers were thought to have died from smoke inhalation before the plane crash landed. Only one of the passengers survived, along with 10 of the 17 crew on board (including the captain of the plane, Gilberto Araujo da Silva, who would later disappear in a cargo flight over the Pacific Ocean) with total fatalities at 123.

The rule is adhered to so strictly that, in February 2011, a Jazz Air flight from Fredericton to Toronto, Canada was forced to delay for 9 hours while the empty plane was flown to Halifax to have a new ashtray installed after pre-flight checks revealed that the ashtray receptacle in the wall outside the toilet door was missing.

So if you're a smoker and you find yourself sat on a plane, don't be tempted to light up just because the bathroom happens to have an ashtray. Instead, realise that the ashtray is there for people who are silly enough to ignore the rules in the first place.

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