It’s been 20 years since smoking was completely banned on all US flights. Here’s how smoking on planes went from normal to banned.

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A flight attendant lighting a cigar on an aeroplane. Bettmann/Getty Images
  • Smoking and aeroplanes once went hand in hand but the practice is now largely banned the world over.
  • US government regulations on smoking on aeroplanes first began in the 1970s and culminated in smoking being banned on all flights touching US territory.
  • China most recently banned smoking on its planes in 2016 and later eliminated an exception that allowed pilots to smoke in the cockpit.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“Smoking or non-smoking?” That question used to be asked of travellers when booking a seat on an aeroplane in the US from the 1970s until 2000 when smoking on aeroplanes was fully banned by the federal government.

In the early days of air travel, smoking on an aircraft was as common as ordering a drink, especially in the onboard lounges of grand aircraft like the Boeing 747.

As the science on smoking became more clear and society moved away from the practice, aircraft became one of the main targets for prohibition. Slowly but surely, airlines and governments took action and incrementally restricted what was once a freely acceptable activity on an aeroplane.

With passengers around the world becoming increasingly averse to smoke-filled cabins, however, the option to smoke on an aeroplane became scarcer and airlines started to go smoke-free despite alienating a segment of their customer base.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the US banned smoking on all flights to, from, or within the US. Now, it’s nearly impossible to travel on an aircraft that allows smoking.

Take a look a back at the history of smoking on aeroplanes and how it took 23 years to eliminate the practice from US skies.


Smoking on aeroplanes dates back to the start of air travel, a time when smoking was a societal norm.

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Passengers smoking on an aeroplane in the 1950s. Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

In the luxurious aircraft cabins of the past, smoking was no more unusual than having a drink or meal.

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Aeroplane passengers smoking and drinking onboard their flight. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

With nearly half of the population admitted smokers, the practice was a common affair and quickly found its way to the skies.

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Aeroplane passengers smoking and drinking onboard their flight. Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Source: Population Reference Bureau


It wasn’t until 1973 that the government stepped in to regulate smoking in the air by mandating smoking and non-smoking sections of an aircraft.

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A traveller smoking onboard an aeroplane. Chris von Wangenheim/Condé Nast/Getty

Source: US Government


The first-ever prohibition on tobacco smoking on aircraft came in 1977 when the US Civil Aeronautics Board banned cigar and pipe smoking on aeroplanes.

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A meeting of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Source: New York Times


Though it was a landmark victory for anti-smokers and their advocacy groups, it wouldn’t be for another 23 years that smoking on planes would be banned outright in the US.

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A flight attendant lighting a cigar on an aeroplane. Bettmann/Getty Images

The next steps came in increments, with the Civil Aeronautics Board then prohibiting smoking of all forms on planes with 30 seats or less in 1984.

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A 30-seat United Express Embraer E120. Robert Alexander/Getty

Source: Washington Post


Restrictions would be placed on certain flights, based primarily on seat count and duration, with the Civil Aeronautics Board voting to ban smoking on flights less than two hours in duration.

Source: New York Times


The vote was later reversed the same day when the chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board changed his mind on the matter but the ban was later brought back to life via a congressional bill that President Reagan signed into law in 1988.

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President Ronald Reagan preparing to read a speech from the Oval Office. Scott Stewart, file via AP

Source: Forbes


Some airlines joined in, with Northwest Airlines banning smoking on all of its domestic flights.

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A Northwest Airlines Airbus A319. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Source: Forbes


Outside the US, airlines such as Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, and Scandinavian Airlines began implementing bans on domestic flights, starting the global trend against in-flight smoking.

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Japan Airlines aircraft are parked on the tarmac at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. REUTERS/ Toru Hanai

Source: Scandinavian Travellers and Aviation Week


President HW Bush later expanded the ban to nearly all domestic flights except for certain flights over six hours in 1990.

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President George HW Bush signing a bill into law in Washington, D.C. Barry Thumma/AP

Source: Forbes


Pilots, however, were still allowed to smoke, with regulators fearing the effects of a pilot going through withdrawals while flying.

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The cockpit of an Airbus A220 aircraft. CLEMENT SABOURIN/AFP/Getty

Source: New York Times


Delta Air Lines banned smoking on all of its flights worldwide in 1995, the first global US airline to do so.

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Delta Air Lines aircraft sit at Reagan National Airport outside Washington. Reuters

Source: New York Times


Later that year, the US, Canada, and Australia signed an agreement banning smoking on flights between the three countries.

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The US President and Canadian Prime Minister meet in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Source: New York Times


In 1997, the European Union issued a ban on all flights in member states, affected flights within and between 14 countries across the continent.

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The headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. Greg Sandoval/Business Insider

Source: Scandinavian Traveller


The final nail in the coffin for smoking on flights to, from, or within the US came in 2000 with President Clinton signing in the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century.

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President Bill Clinton signing a bill into law. Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

Source: US Government


The legacy of in-flight smoking can still be seen today on every aircraft flying as they are required to have ashtrays onboard.

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A passenger smoking a cigarette on an aeroplane. Chuck Nacke/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Despite the prohibition, the ashtray requirement prevents those who disobey the rule from accidentally starting a fire by putting their butts out in a toilet tissue filled trash can rather than an ashtray.

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No smoking signs are featured on nearly every modern aircraft. Robert Alexander/Getty

A holdover from earlier times, some older aircraft that are still flying feature ashtrays in the armrests of seats.

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Aircraft used to feature ashtrays in seat shoulders. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Following the US ban, most countries around the world have followed suit, though some had taken longer than others. China didn’t ban smoking onboard aeroplanes until 2017, with an exception for pilots remaining in effect until 2019.

Source: Skift


The US didn’t stop at cigarettes. Its attention eventually turned to electronic cigarettes, which were banned from being used onboard aeroplanes in 2016.

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E-cigarette users testing new products at a convention. Reuters

Source: New York Times


During every safety briefing, flight attendants will warn about the consequences of smoking on an aeroplane but that doesn’t stop everyone.

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A flight attendant giving a safety briefing before departure. Hispanolistic/Getty Images

Unlike flying in the past, smoking on an aeroplane nowadays includes hefty fines and a visit from airport police upon arrival.

The era of smoke-filled aeroplane cabins is long gone and not likely to return anytime soon.

Some charter aircraft allow smoking, but the lingering stench is unappealing to aircraft owners and other flyers, making it a rarity even then.

The closest most can get to an aeroplane when lighting up a cigarette is either at the terminal footpath or in designated smoking lounges at airports.