Everyone who flies on a commercial airliner has heard the announcement that tampering with an airplane's lavatory smoke detector is a federal offense.
But as Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin reminded the Senate Wednesday, until 25 years ago on this day, it was legal to light up cigarettes on short-haul flights. As a House member, the Illinois Democrat championed the ban, joining with the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., on an effort that earned plaudits in no shortage of Lautenberg obituaries.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Durbin recalled the day he was on the verge of missing a flight from Phoenix back to the Midwest when an airline employee gave him a challenge.
"I was late, and I ran up to the United Airlines counter, and the ticket agent started processing my ticket to get on the flight, and she said to me, 'Here's your boarding pass,' and I looked at it and I noticed that she had put me into the smoking section on the airplane, and I said to her, 'I don't want to sit in the smoking section, isn't there something you can do about this?'" Durbin recalled.
According to Durbin, the agent fired back that there was nothing to be done. However, she said Durbin could take action, since he was a member of Congress.
Durbin and Lautenberg, seen here in 1997, led the effort to prohibit smoking on airplanes. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
"I got on that airplane, got stuck in the middle seat in the smoking section at the back of the plane, surrounded by smokers," he said. "There's an older person, who may have a pulmonary problem, there's a mother with a baby. They're sitting in the non-smoking section, two rows away from me.
"My staff thought I was crazy," Durbin said of the effort. "No one had ever beaten the tobacco lobby at anything."
But, when it came to smoking on airplanes, Durbin, Lautenberg and their supporters ultimately prevailed, as of 25 years ago today. And, as Durbin said on the floor, it was the first of many prohibitions on smoking indoors or in confined spaces that have taken place since.
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