Everything you need to know about smoking on planes in 2021

Like suitcases without wheels or black and white movies, in 2021 smoking on planes is frequently thought of as a relic of a bygone era — a hazy memory of the past. As a result, there is frequent questions and rumours surrounding the topic — can you still smoke on international flights, can you smoke in first class?

You might be surprised to know that smoking on planes in some circumstances is still allowed. You might even have been on a flight where the pilots were smoking! In many circumstances, even in 2021, smoking on planes is still a very recent phenomenon.

This guide aim’s to clear up the myths surrounding smoking on planes, explain when and why smoking on planes was banned, and look at when you still can smoke at 36,000 ft!

4 steps to cope without smoking on flights

  1. Try nicotine replacements such as patches or gum
  2. Keep your hands busy with popcorn or snacks
  3. Avoid having an alcoholic drink on the plane
  4. Bring your own in-flight entertainment

Lots of guides advocate stopping smoking before flying — just start a quit smoking program before you fly. While that might be the best long-term solution, it’s not a quick fix if you find yourself needing to fly and unable to smoke.

01. Try nicotine replacement patches or gum

Stopping the nicotine craving can be a great way to improve your travel experience, and will reduce common nicotine withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and anxiety. Nicotine chewing gum has the added benefit of keeping you occupied, and helping stay on top of the increased appetite that often comes with nicotine withdrawal.

These products are also handily sold in most airport shops, so can be purchased last minute. If you are a heavy smoker, or you have tried these products before and found the effects not particularly strong — despite popular opinion — you can combine the two to boost nicotine levels.

02. Keep your hands busy — popcorn or snacks.

Smoking is both a physical addiction and a psychological habit

HelpGuide — How to quit smoking

While the nicotine replacement above might take the edge of your physical addiction, it won’t replace the psychological habit of rolling a cigarette or the ritual of smoking.

When you are missing smoking on the aircraft, bringing snacks is a great way to keep your hands occupied and combat some of this ritual. Popcorn is especially good for this. If you buy low-calorie — or even make homemade popcorn — your snacking can have a fraction of calories, whilst keeping you occupied for a significant amount of time.

03. Avoid duty-free and the airplane bar

“In light of the current finding, it makes sense that so many people who have quit smoking relapse when they drink.”

Jed Rose, PhD, director of the Duke Nicotine Research Program

While many people associate going on holiday with a few free drinks, to make it easier to get through your flight without smoking you should actually avoid the bar.

Studies into the links between alcohol and smoking have shown that alcohol makes smoking more pleasurable, and this reinforces the idea that people smoke — and crave smoking — more when they have a drink.

To keep your cravings at bay, stick with soft drinks.

04. Engross yourself in the in-flight entertainment

Distracting yourself and keeping yourself busy are frequently advocated for in guides to giving up smoking — but this can be difficult to achieve in the confined space of an aircraft.

Ultimately, the best way to distract yourself from the craving of smoking is to get engrossed in the wealth of movies and media that is available on many aircraft.

If you’re not sure what entertainment the aircraft will have — and to combat frequent IFE problems — consider downloading a favourite film or music onto your phone or tablet beforehand.

When was smoking on planes banned?

Passenger smoking bans

United Airlines were the first airline to introduce a non-smoking section in their aircraft, as early as 1971.

However, designated smoking sections were not particularly effective — it’s a confined space after all — and smoking on planes in many forms persisted in the USA until 2000. At the turn of the millennium, the FAA officially banned smoking on all commercial flights.

Unsurprisingly, smoking on flights continued in some parts of the world for over a decade later. Cubana Airlines are frequently written about for allowing passengers to smoke on their flights until 2014. However, surprisingly Cubana aren’t the last airline keeping the ashtrays in use!

China takes the crown for the latest developed country to ban smoking from airlines entirely, with passengers on domestic flights able to smoke up until 2017.

As a result — it doesn’t matter whether you sit in first class or economy — in 2021 you cannot legally smoke on a commercial flight anywhere in the world.

Airline crew smoking bans.

While the Chinese aviation authority (CAAC) stopped passengers smoking in 2017, the pilots at their carriers were allowed to carry on smoking for a transition period of two years.

The reason the guidance issued in 2017 had a transition period is because the CAAC didn’t want to immediately ban pilots from smoking and have airline crew suffering from nicotine withdrawals whilst trying to fly aeroplanes!

As a result, you could still smoke on a plane in China — if you were a pilot — until 2019!

Can you smoke on international flights?

No. The reason this is a popular myth — you can’t smoke domestically, but you can when you are flying International — is a combination of a misunderstanding of international law and the fact that when smoking bans were brought in there was often a phased introduction with domestic flights banned first.

An example, one of the first aviation smoking bans was implemented in Australia back in 1987. It only applied to domestic flights for the first few years. After a 3-year delay before they announced international measures.

In fact, towards the end of smoking in planes the opposite was true. International regulations prohibiting smoking became widespread before domestic rules. As a result the last airlines that it was possible to smoke, Cubana Airlines, MEA, Iran Air and Chinese carriers were all on domestic flights only.

What are airline smoking tickets?

airline smoking ticket

Smoking tickets were once a real thing, you would book your flight, and you could reserve a ticket in the smoking section of the aircraft.

Smoking tickets only existed for roughly 20-30 years, between 1971 when United Airlines introduced a smoking section, and when smoking on international flights became largely prohibited in the late 1990s.

While smoking wasn’t outlawed in many parts of the world until as late as 2017, smoking tickets fell out of fashion long before then. The number of people wanting to smoke on a plane — combined with increasing aircraft load factors — made dividing sections of the cabin up for designated smoking and non-smoking areas cost prohibitive for airlines.

Is smoking on planes banned completely?

No. While international commercial aviation regulations prohibit smoking on commercial passenger flights, private jets and other charter flights fall under a different set of rules.

However, the FAA regulations for the smoking ban, show that even if flights fall outside the ban, there is nothing to stop airlines prohibiting smoking onboard any flight if they wish.

FAA smoking ban guidance
FAA — Smoking aboard aircraft

Can you smoke on a private jet?

smoking on private jets

Surely, when you leave cattle-class behind and join the elite on private jets you can do what you want?

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are no regulations prohibiting smoking on a privately chartered jet — as they fall under slightly different regulations to commercial airlines.

However, while the cost of charting a private jet has increased in affordability, unless you are extremely wealthy it is unlikely you will own a private jet yourself. Charter companies can search for a jet that allows smoking, but it isn’t a given, and many owners prohibit smoking.

If you have a spare £50 million and purchase your own Gulfstream G650, you can smoke to your hearts content. It’s definitely cheaper to quit smoking, though.

If there is no smoking, why do planes still have ashtrays?

It’s partly due to legacy specifications, but mainly because aircraft manufacturers don’t really trust you!

Design specifications state that you aren’t allowed to smoke — Smoking is not allowed in lavatories. However, you might notice that even the latest planes still have ashtrays:

Regardless of whether smoking is allowed in any other part of the aeroplane, lavatories must have self-contained removable ashtrays located conspicuously both inside and outside each lavatory. One ashtray located outside a lavatory door may serve more than one lavatory door if the ashtray can be seen readily from the cabin side of each lavatory door served.

CS 25.85 – EASA Certification Specification

This is for two reasons:

  1. Because the aircraft may be used for non-commercial flights where smoking is permitted
  2. Airlines know that people will continue to try and smoke regardless of the ban, so they need to provide a safe place to extinguish cigarettes
setting money on fire

What happens if you smoke on a plane?

Even in 2021, this is an occurrence that happens frequently — so what happens?

You can be fined, but depending on the severity of your offence and the crew on the day, you also risk arrest and potential jail time when you land.

Individual countries have differing fines, but the FAA guidance is up to $25,000 in fines. While in practise fines are usually significantly lower, the outcome can be much worse.

Whereas internal FAA regulations call for maximum $25,000 fines for smoking on planes and distracting crews, several incidents involving cigarettes in lavatories resulted in fines of $500 or less.

USA Today — Big fines

Can you go to jail for smoking on a plane?

Absolutely, in fact you can go to jail for significantly longer than you would think.

In 2015, one passenger on a flight in the UK from Birmingham airport to Sharm El Sheikh was arrested for smoking after accidentally setting the toilet bin on fire — hence the mandatory ashtrays!

In 2017 he was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. However, the court of appeal decided this was too lenient. As a result, he ended up being sentenced 9 and a half years in jail — for smoking on a plane.

It’s really not worth the risk.