Smoking On A Plane: A Flight Attendant's View

On Wednesday, a Qatari diplomat disrupted a flight when he was caught smoking in the plane's lavatory. When caught, the diplomat caused further trouble by reportedly making a joke about terrorism. But how often are passengers caught smoking on planes? And what sort of penalty does a person incur? Melissa Block talks to Gailen David, who has worked as a flight attendant with American Airlines for more than 20 years, about the federal law.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Anyone who flies knows the drill: Smoking is not permitted on board planes, including in the lavatories. And yet, Mohammed al Modadi apparently still did it.

He is the Qatari diplomat who sneaked a smoke on a flight from D.C. to Denver. When caught, he joked about lighting a bomb in his shoe. He did not have explosives. He was taken into custody and later released.

The AP reported today that al Modadi was on an official embassy trip to visit an imprisoned al-Qaida operative.

According to the FAA, 696 people have been cited for smoking on board planes over the last five years. It falls to flight attendants to report it, people like Gailen David who's been with American Airlines for over 20 years.

Mr. GAILEN DAVID (Flight Attendant, American Airlines): When someone is smoking in the bathroom, what they've done is they've created an in-flight disturbance. We really treat it the same way that we would treat someone that has assaulted a passenger or has just really gotten out of control.

You know, at that point, we have to first of all ask them to stop the behavior. And we also have to issue them an in-flight disturbance report, it's what it's called. And this really gets the report process in action so that the proper authorities are notified of the situation even if the plane is not met by authorities. So that's really the call of the captain.

BLOCK: You probably wouldn't be catching somebody actually in flagrante, actually in the act of smoking though. How would you track someone down and figure out who created the stench in the bathroom?

Mr. DAVID: It's really tough. I mean, sometimes you have to - as a flight attendant, you have to become a private investigator. There are cases where you will actually catch a passenger exiting the lavatory with a cloud of smoke around them. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Really?

Mr. DAVID: Yes. But a lot of times the customers are the ones that really help in these situations. And they let the flight crew know, hey, I just saw somebody come out of the lavatory and they were smoking.

BLOCK: So how often does it happen to you now, that you would be dealing with somebody who's been smoking on the airplane?

Mr. DAVID: It's very rare, and that's why it would be extra alarming to me at this point. Because, first of all, you question someone's judgment when they've been warned so many times. I would really start to wonder if possibly there was something else security-wise going on.

Because a lot of times, you know, that's the way it happens is people that are possibly going to terrorize a flight will try to get the crew wrapped up with something such as this. Maybe smoking in the lavatory.

BLOCK: Oh, diversion, you mean.

Mr. DAVID: Exactly, with a diversion. And so that's why when people are smoking in lavatory nowadays, you really have to look at it as possibly more than just that.

BLOCK: Well, Gailen David, it's good to talk to you. Thanks.

Mr. DAVID: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Gailen David is a flight attendant with American Airlines, and he runs the Web page Dearskysteward.com.

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