Look up from your seat on almost any commercial aircraft and you’ll see an illuminated no-smoking sign. So why is there an ashtray in the bathroom on an airplane (likely also outfitted with a no-smoking sticker of its own)?
It might seem like the feature is a relic of times gone by—maybe the plane is old, or no one’s updated the lavatory’s design yet. But that’s not the case—inflight smoking was fully banned in 2000 and most planes built before then have since been retired.
It turns out the real reason is simple: Some passengers just don’t follow the rules. And when that happens—and the misconduct takes place at 36,000 feet—there’s got to be safety measures in place. So whether it seems like a reward for disobedience or not, ashtrays are a must.
“If somebody did decide to light up and then put their cigarette in the trash, well, the trash is all paper products, so the ashes could start a fire,” Debbie, an American Airlines flight attendant, told businessinsider.com.
[pullquote] Whether it seems like a reward for disobedience or not, ashtrays are a must. [/pullquote]
In fact, ashtrays in bathrooms are required in order for the plane to leave the runway. As per the Code of Federal Regulations for airworthiness:
“Regardless of whether smoking is allowed in any other part of the airplane, lavatories must have self-contained, removable ashtrays located conspicuously on or near the entry side of each lavatory door, except that one ashtray may serve more than one lavatory door if the ashtray can be seen readily from the cabin side of each lavatory served.”
And this isn’t a case of unnecessary worry. Rogue inflight smoking has been known to happen—and even to take down planes. In 1973, a flight from Rio de Janeiro crashed after a cigarette thrown in a trash receptacle started a fire. All 123 passengers on the Boeing 707 died.
Other wayward passengers have tried. In 2010, a Qatari diplomat was arrested upon arrival at Denver International Airport for smoking on board, as well as making threats to the airline staff. In 2013, a family of four caused a flight to make an emergency landing in Bermuda after the entire group was accused of smoking.
So you see, whether smoking is banned or not, lavatory ashtrays will be a constant. We hope you never use them.