There are two very important reasons why, for commercial airlines, 1988 was a year of great significance.
First, an Aloha Airlines 737 ripped open at 24,000 feet over Hawaii, killing a stewardess and generally sending shockwaves across the country concerning the safety of air travel. Secondly, the first smoking bans began to take place in commercial flights of a two hour duration or less. This got the ball rolling, and eventually resulted in the complete ban of smoking on all airlines by the end of the 90s.
But these two events we’re inherently linked. Because up until then, cigarettes we’re a major factor in making sure a plane didn’t rip to shreds in the air. And this process, it turns out, would quickly become a source of great debate.
Over years of passengers lighting up in the back, airline mechanics had started to develop little methods for quickly and easily inspecting planes before take off. Some of these methods actually relied on smokers. For example, the most common way for mechanics to check for cracks in the fuselage, was to look for nicotine stains. The reason being that when the plane was in the air, and the cabin was pressurized, any crack in the planes surface would slowly suck out air from the interior. And as the air (full of cigarette smoke) escaped, it left a gross little stain. So for mechanics, if there was a stain, that means there was a crack.
Was it a perfect system? Definitely not. But the truth is, it was a system that airlines relied on for many years.
And that was part of the problem. With the smoking ban, the nicotine is gone from many types of aircraft used in shorter flights such as DC-9s and Boeing 727s and 737s, and mechanics then had to rely on much closer visual inspections and in some cases electronic inspections to detect cracks. These electronic inspections required expensive tools, and airlines simply didn’t want to shell out for them.
But when the Aloha Airlines incident resulted in a woman falling 24,000 feet to her death, things got serious.
Pictured above is the plane in question, which amazingly, was able to land despite it’s structural damage. But it caused the FAA to order a visual inspection of all Boeing 737s with more than 30,000 takeoffs and landings and electronic inspections of those with more than 50,000 takeoffs and landings. The result? Things we’re a lot worse than we thought. The inspection revealed tons of cracks in a multitude of planes that could have led to more incidents just like the one above.
So as the ban on smoking took effect, Reps. Tom Lewis, R-Fla., and Dan Glickman, D-Kan., introduced legislation that would require the FAA to conduct extensive research into better detection equipment and systems.
”The easiest and most common way to detect leaks in the fuselage today is to look for tobacco smoke stains on the outside metal,” Lewis told his colleageus in introducing the bill. ”Not very reassuring, is it?”
For years, lighting up on the plane was legitimately saving lives.
But if that 737 hadn’t ripped apart, we may not have realized that cigarettes we’re a terrible solution, to an incredibly important problem.
Still interested? Check out this article from 1988 that briefly covers the whole situation, roughly a month after it happened.