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In-flight smoking under fire. Passengers, airline employees push for congressional action

Marilynn Mittan vividly remembers her last flight as an employee of Eastern Airlines: The inside of the wide-body jet flying from Miami to London was so full of smoke, ``the air had turned blue.'' The pilot eventually turned on the no-smoking sign, says Ms. Mittan, a former flight attendant, ``because the air was not breathable.''

Congress is considering whether to turn on the airlines' no-smoking signs permanently. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey introduced legislation yesterday that would ban smoking on flights of two hours or less. His proposal follows the unexpected approval of a similar bill by the House of Representatives in July by a narrow five-vote margin.

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In addition, the House Aviation Subcommittee, headed by Rep. Norman Mineta (D) of California, will hold hearings next week on legislation to ban smoking from the skies altogether. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina has agreed to hold hearings early this fall on a similar ban proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.

And on Monday, California Gov. George Deukmejian signed a law banning smoking on all flights that begin and end in the state. Experts expect the state's authority over the skies to be tested in court before the ban goes into effect Jan. 1.

Rep. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, sponsor of the House bill to ban smoking on short flights, calls Congress ``the largest frequent-flier club in America.'' The health issue, he says, ``transcends any party label,'' with support coming from conservatives and liberals alike.

Much of the spur to new activity is a spate of recent reports detailing the health danger of smoking on airplanes.

Last summer the National Academy of Sciences completed a study that found separating the airplane into smoking and nonsmoking sections did not prevent flight attendants and other passengers from being exposed to cigarette smoke. In recommending that smoking be banned on all airlines, the report stated that ``diminished ventilation with outside air and increased recirculation of air, a characteristic of almost all new airliner models, will increase previous levels of toxic products of cigarette smoking in nonsmoking sections of the cabin.''

The National Academy's report was followed by an equally damaging report by the surgeon general on the health consequences of involuntary smoking.

The tobacco industry adamantly denies that smoking is a problem on airlines. Brennan Moran, a spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute, says, ``We are very much opposed to further regulation of smoking on domestic flights.'' She says the flying public is not unhappy with the current method of seating and says claims of health problems related to secondhand smoking are ``unsubstantiated.''

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Peter Trask, a Honolulu lawyer who heads an organization called the Aviation Safety and Health Association, criticizes the airlines for inadequate ventilation. Mr. Trask, a nonsmoker, says he believes a total smoking ban would be harmful to addicted smokers. ``Smokers could go to the bathrooms and start a fire,'' he warns. The Air Line Pilots Association is likewise concerned.

The government reports and publicity have triggered an outpouring of letters to Congress.

Ruth Herzberg of Hitchcock, S.D., wrote Senator Hatch, ``I have never been able to board a plane for I am very allergic to tobacco smoke.'' C.B. Kafadar, president of OEA Inc. in Denver, told Sen. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado that he flies 1,500 miles a month managing to fly ``by holding a damp napkin over my nose and throat as a filter.''

Flight attendants, often in angry and confused tones, wrote letters to their union and Congress. Cindy Marcuzzo Baker complained that working in the smoking section of the airplane ``makes my hair, clothes, and body smell as if I've spent the day in a saloon.'' Cathy Gilbert-Silva, a flight attendant for 18 years, wrote Mr. Hatch, ``I will be so grateful when burning eyes, sinuses, and lungs, as well as headaches, nausea, lightheadedness, and blocked ears for flight attendants, will be a part of the past.''

In their letters, flight attendants have also raised safety questions. Georgia Schafer, a United Airlines flight attendant, recalls a flight where the cabin pressure ``kept going crazy,'' causing passengers' ears to block. In a letter to Hatch she recounts how the flight engineer was unable to control the pressure. According to Mrs. Schafer, the mechanics found the valves were covered by nicotine and stuck shut.

Jane Davis, a Denver-based attendant, wrote, ``Just looking at the cushions and carpets that come through can verify the number of burns to the interior of the aircraft.'' Still other attendants told of hours spent breaking up fights between smoking and non-smoking passengers.

In interviews, current and past airline employees recount high-altitude tales:

James Connery, a second officer with Continental Airlines, used to allow flight attendants to come into the cockpit for a few breaths of pure oxygen. ``The flight attendants' eyes were bloodshot and they smelled so bad you wouldn't know they were nonsmokers,'' recalls Mr. Connery, who is now retired.

Although the pilots' union is opposed to a smoking ban, Hugh Fulton, a 22-year veteran of the airways, says, ``Whenever we write up a pressurization discrepancy, the mechanics usually go get an alcohol squirt gun to clean off the tars and nicotines.'' Mr. Fulton says mechanics routinely spot leaks in the planes by looking for nicotine stains on the planes' skins.

Both flight attendants and pilots also report tars and nicotines are acting as glues on safety exits and oxygen masks.

Firings of flight attendants because of the smoking issue are on the rise. Miami lawyer Peter Schwedock is representing flight attendants who are close to being fired because of their extended sick leaves because of respiratory problems. Aside from seeking worker compensation in the State of Florida, he plans to file a class-action suit against the tobacco companies on behalf of the flight attendants who are permanently grounded.

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