Here’s Why Planes Still Have Ashtrays Even Though Smoking Is Banned

In this day and age, it’s almost unheard of for passengers to light up a cigarette during a commercial flight. However, despite the warnings and the little orange light above each seat in the cabin, aircraft still have ashtrays in their bathrooms. Smoking onboard is illegal but ashtrays are a mandatory requirement from the FAA. We take a look at why.

No smoking in the cabin
Why aren’t passengers allowed to smoke? Photo: Getty

Why can’t passengers smoke on aircraft?

In reality, it hasn’t been all that long since airlines banned smoking inflight. In the 1970s, United Airlines became the first to prohibit its passengers from smoking in the cabin. After that, as awareness about the detrimental health effects of smoking became more well-known and smoking in public places lost its popularity, other airlines made the shift too. By 2000, nearly all airlines in the world had outlawed inflight smoking.

The decision made sense. Smoking bans protect the health of passengers and cabin crew in a space where the fresh air supply is already somewhat limited. What’s more, it almost completely eradicates the fire hazard presented by smoking. For the majority of the world’s airlines, smoking in the cabin is not only frowned upon, but is also illegal.

On your next flight, you’ll still notice the telltale signs of that legislation: announcements before takeoff and the persistent glow of an orange no smoking warning above your head. Yet, despite the embargo on inflight smoking, some 20 years later you’ll still find ashtrays within the cabin.

Ashtray in Airbus A380
Paradoxically, ashtrays still exist for smoke-free cabins. Photo: Suresh /R via Flickr

If passengers can’t smoke, what are ashtrays for?

Under the direction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), ashtrays must be present on bathroom doors. There’s a pretty simple and yet shocking reason for that.

Ashtrays are there for the passengers who do smoke on planes. That’s right, despite warnings and laws that prohibit inflight smoking, there are still stubborn customers who continue to disobey the rules. Just last year a passenger was caught lighting a cigarette onboard a Spirit Airlines flight.

But perhaps those passengers that smoke can’t be blamed. If airlines didn’t want their customers to smoke, surely they would remove the ashtrays altogether.

AA cabin crew lights cigar
Inflight smoking is a thing of the past but do ashtrays encourage current-day smokers? Photo: Getty

This was the thought train of one individual who brought the question to the FAA. In response to requests for permission to remove bathroom ashtrays in an Airworthiness Directive, the FAA responded saying:

“The requirement for the presence of an ashtray on or near the lavatory door provides a convenient disposal location for cigarettes (or other smoking material) and thereby ensures that there is a place to dispose of such material in the event that the “no smoking” policy is not adhered to.

“Previous experience and reports have shown that there is a high probability that these persons may deposit the lighted smoking material in the lavatory paper or linen receptacle when no safe and convenient place to dispose of it exists; such actions can result in an in-flight fire aboard the airplane.”

What should smokers do instead?

It’s clear that airlines don’t condone smoking within the cabin however they must be prepared for every eventuality. That said, the presence of ashtrays do not give smokers the green light to neglect the safety of others.

If passengers feel the need to smoke during a flight, they should not feel encouraged to do so. Instead, the individual should seek alternatives prior to their flight, such as nicotine patches.

Do you think airlines should still have ashtrays? Does this encourage passengers to smoke? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.