Ashtrays in Airplanes?

If you’ve been on an airplane in the last 20 years, you’ll know that it’s a no smoking zone, thanks to the milieu of reminders from the staff and on the plane. So how about that ashtray in the bathroom?

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This is the conundrum that Matt Simmons noticed during a period of being a frequent flier. His blog post details brilliantly just much airlines hammer it into your heads to not smoke … and then the confounding ashtray in the bathroom (with a no smoking sticker on it, no less!)

So why would they do such a thing? It turns out that having an ashtray in the bathroom an aviation requirement, based on human behaviour. After a 1973 flight crashed with 123 fatalities due to an improperly discarded cigarette, airline authorities realised the need to ensure that anyone wanting a cigarette would dispose of it safely. Even now. So if you do smoke in a plane, you’ll probably get booted off and fined, but at least you should be able to get rid of it without endangering the safety of the plane.

Simmons suggests that this is all about affordances (and if you don’t know much about this, you should check out Don Norman’s Design of Everyday things for more), and behaviour (he recommends reading Nudge if you haven’t already). This story reminds me of  the behaviour encouraged by the  infamous Schiphol airport fly urinals as well.

Read Simmons’ post for the full explanation. [EDIT: there's also an, uh, lively discussion about the topic over on Gizmodo.]

That said, there is one less place where you’ll see that sign. Notice how the one above your seat never goes off? Some modern planes now use that space to tell you when you can have your electronic devices on and off.



Image NC-CC by roychung1993

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

5 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Ashtrays in airplanes? Yes, really. |

  2. jerrod on

    Actually, there are other reasons for ashtrays and no-smoking signs in aircraft: 1) some commercial airplanes are decades old when the US did allow smoking on airplanes (smoking was bannned in the late 1980s, believe it or not), and 2) there are many parts of the world where aviation authorities still allow smoking (or at least they allowed it much later than the US). So, those signs are really there because a) some airplanes pre-date the no-smoking rules and refitting their interiors are expensive, and b) because globalization means that the major airframers try to create one interior that can be sold to all countries–even those who allow smoking.

  3. @Jerrod, whoops, I can’t count, somehow made out 1990 to be 30 rather than 20 years ago, amended!
    Good point on aging fleets and country rules, though I’m sure it’d be the type of thing they add in rather than take out (it’d need to be able to be cleaned etc in a smoking situation).

  4. Choice Rhythms on

    If you fly spending shy RyanAir you can experience the joy of still having ashtrays in the seat arms. Usually full of chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Ick.

  5. Avangelist on

    I have been thinking about this over the last few years. The air industry has failed to evolve their default. The law around the world is becoming more and more than you cannot smoke in public confined spaces. The default is now No Smoking. If they need an indicator it should be for when you can smoke.