Electronic Cigarettes: Smoking on British Airways

Hayley's picture

Last week, I took a long-haul British Airways flight from Heathrow’s Terminal Five. Other frequent flyers may be aware that the only airlines serving this particular terminal are Iberia and British Airways. Now, to make this relevant, I must explain that I am a recent smoking veteran.

I am fortunate enough to live very nearby a vendor that sells Gamucci Electronic Cigarettes at far below their usual retail price, and the idea one day struck me to give them a try. Within a week, I had cut down on my tobacco intake significantly, and have tapered my use to only social situations over the last month, which is a great personal victory for a pack-a-day smoker of three years.

Before my flight, I ran over British Airways’s regulations to find any explicit mention of electronic cigarettes, of which there were absolutely none. I made my way to Lewisham, where I (rather ambitiously) purchased three nicotine free cartridges for my Gamucci battery, charged the cigarette and packed my bags. When I arrived at Terminal Five, I began to feel anxious about the lack of nicotine that I may have to endure for the ten hour flight, and popped over to WH Smith to buy myself a SKYCIG, containing the equivalent nicotine of 30 cigarettes.

As the flight took off, I flipped through a magazine while casually toking on my SKYCIG (stuffed up my long sleeve so as not to offend any other passengers), when I was quite abruptly disturbed from my flight trance to be informed that the use of electronic cigarettes was absolutely forbidden on all British Airways flights.

Now, I took this news with rather a lot of shock. I may have even been a little rude to the flight attendant, because I simply do not deal well with shock. The primary reason is that, as a smoker of three years, I have always travelled with electronic cigarettes, and never have I been asked to direct the vapour elsewhere, let alone to not use it.

I asked if I might be allowed to use the nicotine free electronic cigarette, to which I was informed that the use of electronic cigarettes was absolutely prohibited, regardless of nicotine intake. I asked to speak to another flight attendant, who was unaware of the rule. It seemed that every other flight attendant had addressed the issue, it being a rather contemporary one.

It occurred to me that perhaps the flight attendant believed that it was a genuine tobacco filled cigarette, and I went to calmly explain how the vapour emitted from the device was entirely benign and tobacco free, and was actually simply a trick for the smoker’s mind. Despite what many non-smokers say, the tiny machines really are odourless, and it is simply impossible that they would smell of tobacco, given that the cartridges contain absolutely no tobacco derivatives. 

The baffled flight attendant said that the issue might be that the appliance was electronic, to which I rebutted that we were perfectly within our right to use our iPhones after plateauing, providing that they were on aeroplane mode. The poor woman looked blankly at me, lost for words. I then respectfully chewed nicotine gum and took the odd drag off my ridiculous expenditure on the occasional trips I made to the lavatories.

Rules & Regulations

It seems, after almost a week of research, that neither British Airways nor Iberia have any overt regulations on their website, or indeed upon speaking to most staff members, regarding electronic cigarettes. It is simply because many passengers are unaware of how the device works that they are offended by its use. Understandably, these passengers may believe that the vapour could harm their lungs, and some even report smelling a strong tobacco odour.

However, as previously stated, the vapour is simply water vapour, and it is absolutely implausible that it could smell anything like tobacco when the derivatives are, even at their most harmful, simply glycerin, water, artificial flavouring and harmless nicotine. Regardless of its addictive properties, it seems unlikely that the presence of nicotine in one’s air supply will cause somebody to disembark a plane and promptly purchase, combust and inhale an entire packet of cigarettes. 

Most online discussions on the subject explain that it is because of this misunderstanding that passengers may be asked to ‘put out’ their electronic cigarette, but, to date, there are only three airlines that outrightly have banned their use- Japan airlines, Airtran and KLM (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij). This does beg the question as to why it is possible to even purchase electronic cigarettes in Terminal Five, if the airlines are just going to prohibit you without reason from using them. This, to me, seems completely futile.

So, for the future, I will limit my water-vapour exhalation to the privacy of the closed bathroom doors on long-haul flights, unless somebody can provide me with a valid reason as to why it is a problem to use my perfectly benign gadget. Because of it, I’ve managed to pretty much quit smoking– a feat achieved despite British Airways' best efforts to keep me hooked.

Hayley Ferguson is a Canadian student currently studying German Literature at King's College London. Read more from her blog here.

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