Before today, I had been on one smoking flight my entire life: Burbank to Seattle in September 1987. I was a year old and do not remember it…My second smoking flight was earlier today on China Eastern from Los Angeles to Shanghai.
Let me start by saying that I am a far stronger advocate for smokers’ rights than many Americans — six years ago I penned a piece entitled “Why I Mourn the Loss of Airport Smoking Lounges” and my viewpoint remains unchanged.
But smoking onboard a flight is different.
As I said then–
I don’t want to see smoking sections return to airplanes, where there is no way for a passenger to avoid the stench and health ramifications of smoke. Anyone old enough to remember smoking on planes should remember that the illusion of a smoking and non-smoking section was often a joke, with smoke wafting throughout the entire airplane.
> Read More: Why I Mourn the Loss of Airport Smoking Lounges
And that remains the case, as today’s flight demonstrated.
Lucky already shared the lurid details, but since I did most of the talking let me share the story from my perspective.
Like a chain smoker who needs a steady fix, for five hours we smelled the distinct smell of cigarette smoke every 15-20 minutes. It was annoying to be sure, but at first it was more a curiosity factor that drove further investigation, because the stench was so strong. Where was it coming from?
We checked galleys and we checked lavatories but there seemed to be no one smoking there. That left the crew rest area and the flight deck as the only realistic options. I asked a FA about the smell and she first claimed that she smelled nothing, then claimed it was the oven.
Hours later, with the stench of cigarettes still filling the cabin, I flagged down a FA and asked her to summon the cabin manager (purser). She refused (“She take break”) and told me to tell her what was wrong. I then tried to get her to admit that the pilots were smoking. My hope was that maybe if she alerted them that passengers were complaining, they would refrain from lighting up for the remainder of the flight.
This FA too at first claimed to smell nothing, then went I imitated taking a drag with my right index and middle finger she asked me if I wanted to smoke.
No…although maybe I would have been invited up to the cockpit.
She told me she would speak with the captain. Five minutes later she returned and said, “Captain said he has never smoked.”
I laughed. She promised that she would send the cabin manager over after she had woken up. The cabin manager never showed up and the smoking continued for the remainder of the flight.
After the flight we ran into the captain and one of the first officers near the baggage claim area…I shamelessly walked right up to them to see if I could smell smoke. Yup.
Under both Chinese and U.S. law, pilots can smoke while the plane is in cruise.
That is not the point.
The point is that China Eastern brands itself as providing “five-star hotel” service in business class and advertises a smoke-free onboard environment:
See 1:13 for the no smoking onboard policy, though such policy appears nowhere on the China Eastern English website
That simply was not the case.
Truthfully, I do not care if the flight crew smokes in the flight deck or not. I just do not want to smell it. What I do care about is providing a clean environment and China Eastern woefully failed at this from Los Angeles to Shanghai. We should not have been subjected to the smell of a burning cigarette for most of the flight. All consumers should expect a smoke-free environment when in a confined tube on a longhaul flight and frankly cultural considerations should not merit any consideration here.
Matthew, in my opinion you should ask for a refund for this this is not right.
I read about this on OMAAT – what totally perplexes me is your statement: Under both Chinese and U.S. law, pilots can smoke while the plane is in cruise. Really????? I would explode with anger if I was on a flight that wreaked of cigarette smoke — I certainly would complain to everyone who would listen after I got off the flight. My husband flies China Eastern from JFK on full fare business class seats bought for him by the Chinese company that he is working for. I’ve told him he needs to fly another airline! Sadly the only other direct option from NYC is United. After reading this I would never ever personally fly China Eastern. They do have a superior hard product to United, but thats not enough for me to risk sitting for 16 hours in a smoky cabin. I don’t know how they get away with this? To me they should not be able to fly to the US unless they can actually provide a smoke free environment, it’s a health issue and it’s disgusting.
I just experienced a smoking pilot flight as well on China Eastern. Luckily it was only a four hour flight but the flight crew’s response was similar to Matthew’s.
Myself, a Western, and my Chinese wife were on a so called non smoking flight in China. We could smell cigarette smoke shortly after take off then again 20 minutes later. My wife asked the flight attendant why someone is smoking and the response was she didn’t smell anything but will ask other attendants. A male attendant actually said he could smell smoke and then walked away. The cabin manager came by later and said none of the passenger are smoking but the Captain said maybe the smoke is coming through the air conditioning system. Her statement sounded strange at the time but we didn’t argue it.
Over the course of the flight I smelled 6 cigarettes and came to the obvious conclusion that the smoking was on the flight deck.
I have flown on over 100 aircraft and have never been bothered by the smell of cigarette smoke. In China, people are smoking almost everywhere, a flight attendant would probably lose their job if they admitted the pilots are smoking on duty.
I will not fly China Eastern Airlines any more if they don’t care about passenger comfort.
I just got off MU578. Smoke the WHOLE time. That and absolutely DISGUSTING food. I don’t know what was worse , the nasty food or the smoke. Service stunk, but no worse than US carriers and the IFE was pretty bad. Seat is great, amenities are nice. I love the muted colors of their 777s. Too bad this is a junk airline. Stay away! I am on a RT ticket trying to find better options to get home. I would take China Airlines PE over China Eastern BIZ. thats how bad it is.
Sorry to hear that. Seems to be a trend…
Oh my goodness! I’m glad it wasn’t just me that noticed this – and on the same run, LAX to Shanghai…in both directions, actually.
I have asthma and cigarette smoke is a huge trigger, even in small amounts. I complained to the stewardess and then various people came up to me the duration of the flight to inform me that they’d checked the restrooms and no one was smoking – but never mind that: the staff clearly were elsewhere.
Had I know this, I would not have flown with China Eastern, no matter the savings. I loved Taiwan and will definitely be back – but on a different carrier with direct flights to Taipei.
Sorry you too had to endure this discomfort!
Same exact thing happened to me on two CE flights last month. When my throat got sore and I couldn’t breathe I told one of the worthless FA’s someone was smoking. First of all, NONE of the flight crew spoke English. NONE. Every single announcement was completely unintelligible. We’d ask what was said and they’d just shrug and walk on. I made hand motions, tried caveman talk, but the FA had no idea what I was trying to tell her. Finally she said, “Oh!”, left and came back 5 minutes later with a sprite! At this point I was livid. I went through the same game of charades and another FA started to walk down the aisle twitching her nose like a rabbit over every row. Face palm. Five minutes later she returned and assured me that “no one smoking” as the nasty scent of cheap “island dreams” air freshener wafted through the air. I refuse to ever fly that airline again and I think everyone should demand that smoking by ANYONE on a plane should be outlawed!!! What happens when a plane is in fire over the middle of the Pacific Ocean??? Horrible, terrible, awful airline with zero regard for passengers health or safety.
In June 2017, I had this problem on a China Southern flight from Guangzhou to Urumqi. Several flight attendants told me that I was mistaken. One told me that she had checked with the pilots and that they confirmed that no one was smoking on the plane. Not only did I smell a strong, unmistakable stench of cigarette smoke. I was experiencing the very unpleasant reaction that I have to concentrated cigarette smoke, shooting pains in my eyes.
I am certain that China Southern’s own announcements/videos state that smoking on an aircraft is illegal in China and emphasize that the penalties for it are stiff, and they do not indicate that the prohibition applies only to passengers. The flight was a miserable, several-hour experience. I was left with the impression that this is just one more example of the Chinese norm that rules do not apply to the people who are in charge.
Daydreaming about taking revenge, I considered reporting this problem to China Southern’s alliance partners, including Delta, and to the FAA, which regulates China Southern in certain ways because it operates service to the U.S.
Matthew, you can report it, but I doubt U.S. regulators will do anything since it does seem under Chinese law that pilots can smoke in the flight deck during fight.
OMG. I thought I was crazy when I smelled cigarette smokes on our China Eastern flight (operated by Shanghai Airlines) from Osaka to Shanghai. Thankfully it was only a 2.5 hrs flight. I would be so pissed if I paid for Biz and PE and have to deal with this the whole trip. Especially since those seats are also closer to the cockpit. Maybe being in Peasant class on the PVD-LAX (13hrs) actually saved us from having to deal with more cigarette smokes.
Either way, I’m NEVER EVER flying China Eastern (add Shanghai Airlines as well) EVER AGAIN. This will be my first and last. Not just because of our experience with the smoking, but also various other reason.
“pilots can smoke while the plane is in cruise” – you need to read the regulations more carefully. That only refers to activities such as ‘supplemental operations’, such as cargo flights.
Do you have a source for Chinese regulations?
No, I don’t. I was suggesting that you need to read the US regulations more carefully.
It’s a Chinese plane. Smoking is prevalent in China. You’re just a whiny little westerner moaning about inconsequential things. Fly an American carrier from now on, and you won’t need to worry about this sort of thing ever again.
Don’t worry, I won’t!
After a 30+hr commute back to the States from Bangkok, 2/3 of my flights (all with China Eastern) wreaked cigarette smoking. This left me nauseous and sick, hours after landing. Only to get back on to ANOTHER vessel, that allowed smoking.
I had hoped, the vessel (and longest leg of 14hrs) flying back to the States would be more strict, but it was not!
Definitely made my jetlag worse!
Thank Matthew for writing this article!!!