Smoking Bans on Airlines: No Whiffs, Ashes or Butts : Flying: Many carriers are increasing the number of smoke-free overseas flights, but some are waiting--and watching--in the wings.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips

Maybe you've heard that sly, charming Brit Richard Branson on the radio, bragging about how his airline is now free of cigarette smoke on transatlantic flights, and inviting other airlines to follow his example.

Well, it's true that the company Branson chairs, Virgin Atlantic Airways, has gone smokeless over the Atlantic. Since May 1, the company's roughly 50 departures per week from the United States to London have been smoke-free, including seven flights weekly from Los Angeles and six from San Francisco. It's also true that most other carriers, already smoke-free by law in their service within the United States, are increasing their smokeless service to Europe.

But Virgin Atlantic wasn't the first major carrier to take this step on U.S. departures. Delta was. And before Virgin announced its move, a consortium of major carriers had already begun holding talks aimed at hammering out a widespread voluntary ban on smoking over the Atlantic.

Since Jan. 1, Delta Airlines planes have been smokeless worldwide--that is, flights to Europe as well as service to Tokyo, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, a region where other carriers have been reluctant to restrict smoking. (Not only is smoking more prevalent in Asia than in the United States, but many of the Asian smokers who travel are businessmen who buy the costliest tickets, making airlines very reluctant to displease them.)

Still, Delta spokesman Clay McConnell reports "no surprises" since the airline made the move, and says it intends to keep the smoking ban in place for the foreseeable future. (The only exceptions are some smoking-tolerant flights advertised by Delta but operated by other carriers through code-sharing agreements, such as Belgium-based Sabena. None of those exceptions reach into Southern California.)

A broader voluntary ban on smoking on transatlantic flights has been under discussion for several months. The interested parties include eight major carriers (among them American, Continental, Northwest, TWA, United and USAir).

The carriers seem to be serious about coming up with a pact; in order to hold meetings, the carriers in December sought and received assurance from the U.S. Transportation Department that the discussions would not be considered a violation of antitrust laws. But so far representatives are reluctant to even guess at when an agreement might be reached.

Airline officials agree that U.S. carriers are moving more quickly than Europeans or Asians toward smoke-free cabins, but some European airlines are showing signs of a drift toward smokelessness. KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways are among the carriers involved in talks about a voluntary ban.

Also, British Airways has made half of its 14 LAX-London weekly departures smokeless, and Lufthansa has been experimenting with the practice since late March, making seven of its 20 weekly New York-Frankfurt flights smokeless.

Here's a survey of the largest U.S. carriers that fly outside North America:

American Airlines offers smoking sections on the majority of its European routes and all Asian and Latin-American routes. But this summer, the carrier is increasing its smokeless flights to England from three to five daily. Year-round, American offers two daily nonstop smoke-free departures to London from New York, and one to London from Chicago. For the summer months, smokeless nonstops will be added from Dallas to London and Chicago to Manchester. Smoking sections are included on all American nonstop flights to Europe, but a spokeswoman notes that those fleeing fumes can fly to New York, Dallas or Chicago, then connect with a smokeless departure.

United Airlines since May 1 has banned smoking on all flights from the United States to London and Zurich. The carrier continues to include smoking sections on all its other European service and most of its service elsewhere in the world. (But the nonsmoking wave is advancing: Among United flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, four per week ban smoking and seven permit it.) From LAX, United offers one year-round daily smokeless nonstop flight to London, with a second added in June, July and August. All United departures for Asia from LAX permit smoking.

Northwest Airlines, which banned smoking in first class on international flights in January, 1994, widened that restriction in March, 1995, to include all sections on flights to Europe (except Amsterdam) and Hong Kong. Flights to Japan continue to include smoking sections. Thus, since Northwest has no nonstop flights to Europe or Hong Kong from Los Angeles, all Northwest international departures from LAX include smoking sections.

Trans World Airlines continues to offer smoking sections on all of its international flights, as does USAir.

As of May 12, Continental Airlines continued to offer smoking sections on international flights, but a spokesman said the carrier was evaluating a proposal to go smokeless on some flights to Europe this summer.

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