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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aeroflot Flies in Face of Smoking Ban

Anatoly Khusid may be a smoker, but he’s not a slave to his habit.

"I can actually survive flying to the States without smoking," Khusid, a 72-year-old Muscovite, says with a laugh as he pushes a loaded cart toward the customs zone at Sheremetyevo Airport.

"But Vasily here," he nods worriedly in the direction of his friend, playing nervously with a pack of cigarettes, "if they don’t let him smoke, he’ll never live to see New York. He’ll just keel over somewhere above the ocean."

Luckily for Vasily, he was in no imminent danger of dying from nicotine deprivation on the Aeroflot flight he was about to board Tuesday: Russia’s biggest international air carrier is one of the last world airlines to still allow passengers to puff among the clouds.

Moreover, for the last few months, Aeroflot has been waging a real battle over this policy by trying to overturn a new ban on smoking on its flights to the United States.

Under legislation passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on April 5, smoking is prohibited on all flights to and from the United States, regardless of the carrier and country of origin.

Aeroflot believes that banning smoking would violate its passengers’ rights. "If we do it, every passenger would have the right to sue us for an infringement on his or her freedom," said the head of the Aeroflot legal department, Boris Yeliseyev.

For Aeroflot, the issue also is one of national sovereignty. "Aeroflot might be a private company, but we are registered in Russia and we function by Russian laws, not American," Yeliseyev said.

"If this were an international convention, ratified by the Russian parliament, we wouldn’t mind. Like this, it’s just forcing U.S. laws on us and we don’t like it," he said.

But for Lena, a 25-year-old flight attendant who works on Aeroflot’s Moscow-New York route, smoking flights are unpleasant and a practical nightmare. "I would have introduced this ban ages ago if it were up to me," she said angrily.

"There’s always more smokers than smoking places in the plane, so everybody comes to the rear for a cigarette and we have to shoo them away like in kindergarten," she complained. "The air conditioning system just cannot cope with so much smoke."

"Non-smokers often get mistakenly seated in the smoking sections and vice versa," she continued. "It’s a mess and it would be so much easier simply to ban it. People can survive 10 hours without nicotine."

The smoking dispute was discussed in late September on a three-day visit by Russian federal aviation officials to the U.S. State Department in Washington. Aeroflot representatives were also present at these talks, Yeliseyev said.

"The Russian side raised concerns about the smoking ban," said John Byerly, a State Department official who headed the U.S. negotiating team. "The problem is the ban has been passed by the Congress, so it’s a law and therefore we have to follow it.

‘It’s just forcing U.S. laws on us, and we don’t

like it.’

Aeroflot’s Yeliseyev

"Luckily, it’s a brand new law, which still permits interpretations," Byerly added. "Now we have to see how far we can go, to choose the appropriate way to address Aeroflot concerns."

The smoking ban has not been challenged by other airlines, he said. Aeroflot is the only European airline that still has smoking flights, according to the International Air Transport Association.

No concrete results were reached during the Washington talks, Byerly said. The Aeroflot official said another meeting was scheduled for the end of October.

But Yeliseyev said Aeroflot may not be able to continue tolerating smoking on its U.S. flights for too long. "I think we will probably have to consider a smoking ban in the future," he said. But he said the airline would like a grace period so as not to upset those passengers who have already bought tickets with the understanding that Aeroflot allows smoking.

Aeroflot has not conducted any market research into whether smoking plays any role when people choose an airline. But for the majority of passengers interviewed Tuesday at Sheremetyevo, smokers or non-smokers, the crucial argument for flying the Russian airline was the significantly lower price of its tickets. "I would prefer it to be a non-smoking flight, but I still have to count my money," said Dmitry Popov, 28.

Yeliseyev said Aeroflot’s most probable first step would be to prohibit smoking on its planes flying inside U.S. air space, from New York to Chicago for instance.

International Air Transport Association officials said the United States had the right to ban smoking within its air space, but enforcing the ban was another matter.

"That could turn out to be rather ludicrous," IATA spokesman Tim Goodyear said in a telephone interview form Geneva. "What are they going to do, have an announcement saying: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re entering U.S. air space now, please extinguish your cigarettes?"’

But Aeroflot has already started to limit smoking by imposing bans on all flights inside Russia lasting up to two hours.

IATA officials said airlines are prohibiting smoking not because it is a safety hazard or even a significant health risk but because most passengers prefer non-smoking flights. "It is mainly a matter of not even health but public perception and convenience," Goodyear said.

Passengers who try to violate the ban, however, can be a safety problem.

"IATA has two well-documented cases when a passenger who was not allowed to smoke on a plane did it in the lavatory, causing a serious fire," Goodyear said.

But he said steps can be taken to limit the risk. "We simply introduced regulations demanding more sophisticated smoke detectors to be installed in the lavatories," he said.