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A Dream Goes Up in Smoke : Flying: Freedom Air, for tobacco lovers only, takes flight. But there were more media types stepping off the plane at LAX than paying passengers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Marty Stollar booked a seat on the first charter flight of the Freedom Air Smoker Club, he figured he was voting with his pocketbook for smokers’ rights.

And, the Toronto developer acknowledges, he really hoped Tuesday morning’s inaugural flight, from Chicago to Los Angeles, would be full of puffing partiers.

Stollar didn’t figure on celebrity. He had no idea that he’d be interviewed and/or filmed by three major newspapers, a German news service, an international photo agency, CNN, NBC, the BBC and those zany folks from “A Current Affair.” And that was before the three-hour, 45-minute flight had reached the Rockies.

But news tips travel faster than a Boeing 727.

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So, imagine his surprise when he stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, only to be greeted--as was every male passenger before him--by cries of “Are you Marty Stollar? Can we talk to you?” Yep, a throng of L.A. radio, TV and print reporters had worked out the equation: Stollar + sound bite = story.

Stollar was one of just two real passengers on board. The other was Ruthie Fairchild, who doesn’t smoke, but needed to get to Los Angeles quickly and cheaply.

The Clinton, Iowa, woman explained that she was heading west to support her brother, McKinley Lee, at his court appearance Friday. Lee, a bodyguard for rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, has been charged with murder in the Aug. 25 shooting death of a man in the Palms area of West Los Angeles. Lee has acknowledged the shooting but claims that he fired at the victim in self-defense. Mr. Dogg (a.k.a. Calvin Broadus) is similarly charged.

The remaining 34 people on the Freedom flight? Seven crew members, a publicist, 15 media types, 10 Chicago-area travel agents. And the retired United Airlines pilot and Camel (unfiltered) smoker who passionately believes in smokers’ rights and bellied up to the bar with some serious dollars to finance three round-trip charters between O’Hare and LAX.

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A shell-shocked Stollar--last seen rushing to baggage claim at the Bradley terminal and offering hopes that the interviews were finally over--says he’s glad he supported the fledgling enterprise. But somewhere over Kansas, and by then just a correspondence course and thesis away from a doctorate in Media Drive-by Forensics, Stollar wondered aloud if reporters weren’t missing a better story. He pointed two rows ahead, where a three-person crew from “A Current Affair” was busy crafting its segment.

And what a show that was.

There’s on-air personality and nonsmoker Robin Dorian hacking away at billows of smoke, then hanging ornamental air fresheners and a “No Smoking” sign above her seat. Now she’s putting on a small white mask, common to Southern California joggers on smoggy days. As the camera rolls, she reaches into her bag of props for a snorkel mask, then a full-fledged gas mask and a supermarket tabloid. Meanwhile, her sound man, out of camera range, is chain-puffing Marlboros and spewing mass quantities as fast as he can. All they’ll have to add is a laugh track.

The masks, though, weren’t necessary. Jan Anderson, a nonsmoking travel agent from Elgin, Ill., was surprised how few cigarettes were smoked. The “A Current Affair” air fresheners, she added, bothered her more than the smoke.

For those who may have been disturbed by the smoke, however, changing seats was no problem. There were 130 empty ones.

That’s not quite the way that Ted Hall had it planned.

On the night before Flight 1, the Freedom Air founder and president sat in an airport hotel lounge and talked--over coffee and cigarettes--about the desire that had smoldered since 1988, when federal laws limiting smoking on planes were first implemented.

Hall, 60, and Jinni, his nonsmoking wife of seven years, started more serious plotting in December, 1991, checking regulations and crunching numbers through a home computer. The Ramona, Calif., residents devoted time to little else since his retirement in February after 28 years.

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Last spring, they decided smokers’ charters just might fly and placed a deposit with American Trans Air for test flights. They navigated through government rules and received approval for restricted charters: Passengers must be 21, join the Freedom Air Smoker Club or sign a waiver covering health hazards. (Cheap perfume, maybe, but there would be no crying babies on Freedom’s flights.)

On Aug. 4, Hall went public with his plan: Freedom Air Smoker Club would fly three round trips between Chicago and Los Angeles on Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and 12.

The response was outstanding, he says, most calls to his 800 number congratulatory. Media inundated Hall with interview requests he graciously fulfilled. He sent out about 1,000 membership applications ($20 lifetime) and nearly 100 people joined. His only worry then, he confessed Monday, was “trying to figure out how I was going to handle 350 people” on the first flight.

Hall needn’t have worried.

By Labor Day weekend, bookings were dismal. And the cancellation parachute on the charter contract would increase to 75% in a few days. “Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a slogan coined by Freedom publicist Margie Craig, was headed toward a foamed runway replete with emergency vehicles.

Hall almost canceled the October trips. “But that’s not what I said I was going to do,” he recalled. The Halls moved forward, cutting already competitive fares to $198 one way, $396 round trip. “I told Jinni that I can live better with losing money than going back on my word,” Hall said.

It’s no small change. The losses from savings and his retirement fundcould exceed $200,000, he says. And if he and American Trans Air had not worked out an equipment change last Thursday--from a larger L-1011 to the 727--his ante would have climbed an additional 100 grand. As it is, his ticket for each 727 round trip, Hall says, is $39,000. (Between 100 and 120 round-trip, and paying, passengers are needed to break even on each.)

He had hoped for some support from the tobacco industry, but has had little or no contact with it in the past five months. He underestimated how critical, and expensive, advertising would be in Chicago and Los Angeles. He needs, but can’t afford, more promotion and more frequent flights.

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“The market is there,” Hall says. “It just has to be served. I realize I’m woefully inadequate. It will take a regular schedule.”

That, airline industry watchers and on-board travel agents say, and a frequent flier plan.

An upbeat Hall still thinks someone, probably a major carrier, should tap the market. Regardless, he’s not sorry about the money spent. “I guess I may have invested it in learning how to run a charter company. I look at it as paying for an education. I’ve established my credibility. . . . And all of the bills will be paid.”

Most passengers for Freedom Air Flight 1 started arriving for check-in at Terminal 4 (located on the bottom floor of an O’Hare parking garage) about an hour or so before its scheduled 9 a.m. departure. The Film at Eleven Folks had already assembled, and each person who passed through the doors received a similar greeting: Are you a real passenger, a newshound, or a travel agent?

When it became obvious there were precious few of the first, the travel agents became excellent clip-and-bite material. A half-dozen TV crews--some Windy City stations showed up but didn’t fly--jockeyed for position. “A Current Affair” had to re-shoot Robin Dorian’s stroll to the flight counter when another videographer, obviously not a regular ACA viewer, tried to film her entrance and had to be chastened: The light atop his video camera had harmed ACA’s shot; he was getting in the way. There were no other ugly incidents.

The charter backed from its midfield gate a bit late, but was airborne by 9:25. Less than 10 minutes later, Captain Bob Kuba announced: “And now the moment you’ve been waiting for--if I can get this switch off. It hasn’t been turned off in 2 1/2 years.”

The “No Smoking” light went dark; Ted Hall’s face, then his cigarette, lit up. He had, he said, mixed emotions: “I would have liked to have seen a full plane, but I’ll never forget this thing.”

(Hall would smoke an entire pack of Camels during the next 3 1/2 hours. Most, he said, were for the benefit of camera crews. Other people, possibly tired of photographers or still flinching from the $3.70-per-pack rate at the O’Hare Hilton, smoked considerably less.)

Travel agent Terence Grace quickly followed Hall’s lead. He’s glad to see Freedom Air, he said while exhaling a cloud, calling the airline smoking ban hypocritical: “They let you drink on board and then go drive your car. But they won’t let you smoke. Drunk drivers kill a lot more people than secondhand smoke.”

Still, he’s unsure how much potential Freedom Air has, particularly with such limited flights.

Smoker/agent Gary Haverkamp was more skeptical: “He’s got guts for trying it. But in the end, I don’t think it’s going to fly.”

Grace, Haverkamp and other agents on board flew back Tuesday with the five real passengers booked for Freedom Air’s 12:45 p.m. return to Chicago.

It would be a long day, but probably worth it for those on Flight 1.

For somewhere--be it a local Chicago or Los Angeles station or affiliate, a British or American network, or maybe even “A Current Affair"--the odds were most excellent that everyone would be on television.

Marty Stollar could bet on it.


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