Olympic Airways 417: A Key Moment For The In-Flight Smoking Ban

We are all familiar with the sight of the ‘no smoking’ light next to the seatbelt signs on commercial aircraft. The general outlawing of smoking onboard aircraft was a gradual process, with different countries imposing different restrictions at different times. However, a key turning point occurred 24 years ago today, involving Olympic Airways flight 417.

Olympic Airways Boeing 747
The incident occurred on one of Olympic’s Boeing 747s. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

The flight in question

Former Greek flag carrier Olympic Airlines bore the name Olympic Airways for much of its 52 years history. This included the time when the incident involving flight 417 took place, namely January 1998. The flight was a service that originated in Cairo, and its destination was New York. As used to be more common with long-haul flights, it made a stop along the way.

The location where the service touched down en route was Olympic’s main hub in Athens, Greece. This is where Dr Abid Hanson and his wife, Rubina Husain, boarded the New York-bound flight. The aircraft operating the flight on January 4th, 1998, was a Boeing 747 that had both smoking and non-smoking sections in its passenger cabin.

Olympic Airways Boeing 747
Passengers on Olympic’s 747s could smoke in certain seats. Photo: Alan Lebeda via Wikimedia Commons

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Smoking was only partially outlawed

At this time, smoking wasn’t fully outlawed in passenger cabins, although it had been prohibited in aircraft bathrooms since 1973. This came about after a disposed of cigarette in a bathroom was thought to have been a factor in the crash of Varig flight 820 near Paris.

10 years later, in 1983, an inflight bathroom fire involving Air Canada flight 797 prompted airlines to be required to install smoke detectors in their aircraft toilets. As such, passengers could no longer retreat to the bathroom to smoke. However, certain countries and airlines still permitted the practice in certain areas of their main passenger cabins.

Interestingly, this played a role in the diversion of British Airways flight 9 in 1982. This saw a Boeing 747 lose power to all its engines after flying through a volcanic ash cloud. While this caused smoke to accumulate in the cabin, it was initially thought to merely have been from cigarettes. In any case, the jet touched down in Jakarta with no injuries.

No Smoking Sign
Countries banned inflight smoking at different times. Photo: Kashif Mardani via Wikimedia Commons

No clear divide between sections

In 1996, two years prior to the incident involving Olympic Airways flight 417, the ICAO had pushed for a blanket smoking ban onboard international flights. However, no such legislation had come into place by the time that January 4th, 1998 rolled around.

As such, when Dr Abid Hanson and Rubina Husain boarded the Boeing 747 in Athens, they entered an aircraft with smoking and non-smoking sections. The couple were seated in the non-smoking section, due to Hanson’s sensitivity to smoke and ‘recurrent anaphylactic reactions.’ However, being seated apart from the smokers wasn’t enough in this case.

On the flight in question, there was no physical divide between the two sections of the economy class cabin. As such, non-smokers could still experience second-hand smoke if seated nearby. Owing to Hanson’s sensitivity, and the fact that their seats were just three rows from the smoking section, the couple requested if they could move elsewhere.

Olympic Airways Boeing 747
There was no partition between the 747’s smoking and non-smoking sections. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

A tragic allergic reaction

The flight on which Hanson and Husain were traveling was a busy one, as is often the case for transatlantic sectors. However, there were 11 vacant seats onboard, to which Hanson could have moved in order not to trigger his sensitivity to smoke from the adjacent section.

However, an Olympic Airways flight attendant refused this request, despite it being made three times according to court documentation. With the prevalence of smoke increasing in the cabin, Dr Hanson, who is also reported to have suffered from asthma, elected to take a walk towards the front of the jet, in search of fresher air away from the smoking section.

Sadly, however, his evasive action proved too late. He later succumbed to an allergic reaction to the second-hand smoke, passing away after a few hours despite medical attention.

US Supreme Court
Husain sought damages from Olympic at the Supreme Court. Photo: Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons

The court case

Following Hanson’s death, Husain filed for damages against Olympic. She did so under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, which permits damages to be claimed following inflight accidents. Having filed the claim in a California federal district court, Husain was awarded a $1.4 million sum in damages upon the decision that Hanson’s death was accidental.

Olympic Airways elected to appeal this preliminary ruling, with the suit going all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The carrier argued that the nature of Hanson’s death, involving a preexisting medical condition aggravated by airplane conditions, could be seen as not having been accidental under the statutes of the Warsaw Convention.

Aircraft Bathroom Ashtray
Bathrooms retain ashtrays today despite the ban. Photo: Michael Ocampo via Wikimedia Commons

The case was argued in November 2003, and decided the following February. While not unanimous, the court ruled 6-2 in favor of Husain, citing the refusal to allow Hanson to move seats as a key ‘link in the chain’ when it came to his untimely passing.

Why do bathrooms still have ashtrays?

The tragic events of Olympic Airways flight 417, and the subsequent case of Olympic Airways vs Husain, are seen as a key turning point in the debate surrounding inflight smoking. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw several wider bans implemented, such as in the US in 2000. Previously, smoking had been permitted there on flights longer than six hours.

Smoking (and indeed the use of e-cigarettes) is now almost universally outlawed onboard commercial aircraft. However, you will probably have noticed that their bathrooms still have ashtrays and ‘no smoking’ signs. According to Time, this is so, if a passenger does feel the need to break the rules, they at least have somewhere safe to dispose of their cigarette.

Do you remember the incident involving Olympic Airways flight 417? What are your memories of the inflight smoking era? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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