Why I Mourn the Loss of Airport Smoking Lounges

Call me old-fashioned, but few things irritate me more than seeing smoking areas eliminated from the secure side of airports. I don’t smoke, don’t intend to ever smoke, and consider it an unhealthy, overpriced, and sophomoric habit.

At the same time, 20% of the U.S. population does smoke and that percentage is much higher in many countries around the world. One line of reasoning insists that the harder we make it for people to smoke, the less they will do it. There is no doubt some truth to that, but I think the way cigarettes are taxed in many states right now is more than enough to discourage people from smoking. We see that reflected in the dwindling number of smokers each year in America.

To give you an example, for years LAX offered outdoor patios in many terminals, like Terminal Six on the left, where smokers could light up before or after a flight without having to leave the secure area. Due to a change in the Los Angeles Municipal Code that now bans smoking within 20 feet of all doors and windows of a business establishment, the smoking patios at LAX were locked up one night in a fashion reminiscent of Mayor Daley ordering his goons to tear up Meigs Field.

I understand the concern of some that smoking areas pose a hazard to employees by subjecting them to smoke, but I do not believe that is relevant to most airport smoking areas. If the overnight custodian steps out on the patio or into a smoking room to empty the ashtrays into a waste bucket, he’s being exposed to less smoke (probably none at all) than the custodians who have to empty the trash outside the terminal entrances where smokers now must huddle for a smoke. It’s not like there is a bartender on the patio who has to breath in the smoke all day against her will.

There are many improvements I would like to see at LAX, but my top priority is the restoration of smoking areas. And let me be controversial: I’d like to see indoor smoking areas return!

I’m not advocating for the animal cages available at Frankfurt or Stockholm (for example), though they would be better than nothing.

While better than nothing, I don't like the cage-like look of the smoking cubicles at CPH (left) and FRA (right).

CPH picture courtesy of Mashup Culture blog and FRA picture courtesy of Gordon Dewis

I’m also not advocating for smoking areas that non-smokers cannot escape from, like the gate areas at Moscow Sheremetyevo or the way airports like Athens and Frankfurt used to be just a few years ago.

I took these pictures at SVO during my 2007 visit to Moscow. No way to escape the smoke here.

What I want is a comfortable, ventilated room where smokers can enjoy a cigarette or cigar before or after a long flight. My model airports are Hong Kong and Zürich, which offer relatively spacious oases for passengers to smoke. These well-designed rooms do not bother anyone: unlike the smoking lounge near C7 at IAD that hits you with the stale smell of smoke when you walk by (though I’d rather have that than no smoking area at all), these smoking areas do not burden the senses or endanger the health of those who wish to avoid them.

HKG and ZRH are just two examples of airports that offer a comfortable and secluded place for travelers to smoke.

Photos via Flickr users See-ming Lee (Hong Kong) [top two] and karbon69 (Zürich) [bottom four]

With smokers herded out to terminal sidewalks, I can't help but to breathe in cigarette smoke when I enter the terminal at most airports. I submit that making available smoking areas on the secure side would result in less second-hand smoke than exists now.

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.

But what we are talking about here is an area that is only accessed by an affirmative step and that anyone can avoid if they so desire.

I really hope that one day this discussion will become moot because no will be foolish enough to smoke, but let’s be realistic: that is not going to happen when smoking is so ingrained and even extolled in cultures around the world.

Airports like SFO, LAX, and JFK are gateways to America for millions of visitors each year—millions of smokers each year—and I find it shameful that smokers have become such pariahs in our culture that they have to endure additional torture by the TSA if they (gasp) want to smoke a legal substance that the government depends on for tax revenue.

It is probably a pipe-dream, but I’d love to see smoking areas—whether that be the re-opening of the patios at LAX or the installation of specially ventilated rooms (that the tobacco companies would be more than happy to fund)—return to major airports in America even if states have passed comprehensive smoking bans. Colorado pulls this off nicely at DEN as does Virginia at IAD, at least in terminal B. A happy medium that protects the rights of non-smokers while providing a place of refuge for those afflicted with the habit is possible—and necessary.


One of two smoking lounges in Terminal B at Washington Dulles

Photo via Flickr user afagen  •   Top photo of LAX T6 smoking patio courtesy of Don Boyd


mowogo July 14, 2010 at 06:05 pm

While this would be a good thing, many of the major international airports are in states that believe they can save passengers from themselves. I know IAD is moving in the right direction, just as slowly as they expand the airport. I think the key for the C smoking lounge will be if UA keeps or grows its presence there with the merger. The other model lounges I've seen in the US are in ATL, on E and A (the new one)

@mowogo: Thanks for your comment. It just seems to me that there is more second hand smoke problems now outside terminal entrances than there would be in designated smoking areas on the secure side. Sadly, the solution will probably be to completely ban smoking on airport property.

I rarely go through Delta hubs, but smokers certainly have an advantage when flying on Delta. CVG, ATL, and SLC all accommodate smokers nicely.

I'm a bit pessimistic about the future of United at IAD. I don't think UA is willing to put the money into their share of the new terminal and I don't think they like paying ~$5/passenger for the new train system that takes longer than the mobile lounges! I wouldn't like it either. IAD will be a United stronghold for years, but I think that eventually IAD will go the way LAS went for US Air.

david July 14, 2010 at 09:45 pm

There is a repeated word "near" in the paragraph preceding the group of 6 photos.

mowogo July 14, 2010 at 09:53 pm

I flew through SLC once back when I was a Delta flyer, and the smoke is even worse than the IAD C smoking lounge, simply because they don't even have doors on their lounge.

The only way IAD will go the way of LAS is if UA opens a new east coast hub. Post-merger, EWR and ORD really can not support major expansion (even with some contraction) needed to support the collapsing of IAD. Also, the government contracts are too good for them to pass up, though they may play hardball on new concourse costs (like DL did with the new terminal under construction at ATL)

@David: Thanks for pointing that out. I fixed it.

@mowogo: Good point on the GOV contracts. What I don't see is United Express and Continental Express/Connection serving the same destinations from EWR and IAD. I know there is a great deal of overlap with SFO and LAX, but perhaps mainline will remain at IAD and UX will be diminished? Of course that doesn't make too much sense because the hub and spoke system seems to require regional jets today.

I flew through SLC last November on DL and could have sworn there were doors on the smoking lounges, but I can't say for sure.

Diane Smith August 7, 2010 at 01:15 pm

I appreciate your writing this article, as a non-smoker. As I am a smoker, but a polite smoker, if there can be one. I do not smoke at a resturant, will smoke in my car or near anybody who is a non-smoker. That is just common sense. However, I am a frequent flyer.. and take very long trips. I wish that they would have kept some of the smoking lounges, epecially the ones that are CLEARLY marked smoking. If you don't want to go in there- then you don't have to!! Instead, now I have to do a mad dash outside and now the security lines are jammed packed even worse because of additional people going through. I understand that they want to save ourselves from ourselves.. but how about the drunken man who had to much to drink at the bar waiting for a flight. I would like somebody to save me from that. But, of course, that is money that is going to the airports as revenue.. have they ever thought about charging to go into the smoking room- I would PAY FOR THAT!!

@Diane: Thanks so much for taking time to comment. I think your idea to charge smokers to go into a room is a good one. I know at the Aviator's Lounge in Denver smokers are required to purchase one drink to use the smoking lounge.

The way I see it, tobacco companies like RJ Reynolds or Philip Morris would build the smoking lounges and airports could charge say, $2, for passengers to use them. Not only would that make the airport/city money, but it would give smokers like you a chance to smoke in peace, without being herded like animals out to the sidewalk.

@Diane ... In the Nashville airport they have two 'cigar shops' that have smoking lounges. I believe it costs $4 or $5 or a $10 purchase to get in to it. It's a nice little place that is well insulated and they offer free coffee as well. A great little spot to sit and relax while waiting for your flight.

Rudy February 20, 2012 at 01:26 pm

Dubai International has the world's worst airport moking room!!!

1) Very poor designed and disastrous planning

2) Too cramed for even a small group of smokers

3) Negligible ventilation

4) Smoke even went outside the enclosure to the waiting looby

5) Very dirty for such a new airport

If you could, avoid Dubai airport and transit via Qatar's Doha Airport, the smoking area are so much better.

And Singapore Changi Airport was fantastic with its outdoor smoking area - The Cactus Garden - and its many well-ventilated and comfortable seats indoor lounges

Mechanized September 28, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Great Article!

It's such an annoyance not being able to smoke once in the secure area.

Anthony Delapaz September 1, 2014 at 06:15 pm

Screw everyone who is against it, banning smoking is ridiculously, simple well made ventilated room tucked in a nook of our extremely large airports. Smoking is a part of peoples lives, just as drinking is to most. Are freedoms are getting stripped from us slowly, the one time i need a cigarette i can't have it

In terms of secondhand smoke exposure being any sort of actual "health problem" for air travelers as they walk in and out of gates where smokers are gathered outside, I examined a similar problem several years ago while doing some new writing.

I analyzed the exposure of students walking through a group of smokers around a door of a campus building. Using the Antismokers' own EPA Report figures as a basis and then correcting for durations and intensities of exposure, I found that basically you would have to, on the average, walk through such a doorway every day for 250 million years to get, on the average, a single case of lung cancer. If a fairly frequent flyer (36.5 flights/year) wanted to have a 50% chance of getting cancer that way they'd have to fly for 2,500,000,000 (2.5 billion) years, or almost as long as the planet Earth has been fairly solid.

There's absolutely no reason why airports can't provide comfortable indoor smoking areas for smokers and their friends to relax while waiting for flights... EXCEPT that such areas don't fulfill the mandate dictating that smokers must be "punished" for their habit (like lab rats doing the wrong thing) so that their behavior will be "conditioned" into more proper channels.

Michael J. McFadden Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"

Alistai Edward July 10, 2016 at 08:32 pm

Avoid Kuala Lumpur International airport: the airport authorities CLOSED ALL the smoking lounges at KLIA2 (including at Q6) due to HEALTH reasons, but allowed an entirely poorly-ventilated, ill-conceived and continually dirty one at the main terminal KLIA1! Skip KL wherever possible and make your stop-overs at neighbouring Singapore's famed Changi, with arguably the world's best smoking lounges, spread throughout the 3 terminals, including a fabulous Cactus Garden rooftop smoking lounge, complete with a lively bar!

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