Smoking on planes ban 'inconvenient': archive shows opposition

Smoking was banned on flights in Australia in 1986, in what is believed to be a world-first.
Smoking was banned on flights in Australia in 1986, in what is believed to be a world-first. 

Younger Australians probably don't recall the days when taking an airline flight was akin to spending hours in a smoke-filled front bar, albeit without the bad language and smell of spilled beer.

Non-smokers suffered on international flights as smokers puffed away from takeoff to landing.

That began to change in the mid-1980s when the then Labor government acceded to pressure from airlines and implemented the first of a progressive series of bans that led to no smoking on any aircraft under any circumstances.

Neither can you smoke in airline terminals except in designated areas.

Cabinet papers for 1986, released by the National Archives of Australia, show that the government decided on December 16 that year to move by regulation to ban smoking on domestic flights longer than 90 minutes if it received a formal request from the airlines.

It was certainly one of the most popular decisions that I ever made, not least with the flight attendants, even the heavier smokers among them.

Former Labor government minister Gareth Evans, special guest speaker at the release of the cabinet documents for 1986 and 1987, said he believed that Australia was the first country in the world to implement such a ban.

"And it was certainly one of the most popular decisions that I ever made, not least with the flight attendants, even the heavier smokers among them, who hated the constant fug in which they had to work," he said.

Archives historical consultant Jim Stokes said there was opposition.

"This decision was opposed by the Business Regulation Review Unit, which argued that the benefits of the ban for non-smokers would be more than offset by the inconvenience it would cause to smokers," Dr Stokes said.

This wasn't the only change affecting the airlines, with deregulation of the domestic market as the government gave the required three years' notice of its intention to terminate the Two Airline Agreement.

That agreement was launched in 1952 when the coalition government of Robert Menzies legislated to permit only two airlines, privately owned Ansett Airlines and the government-owned Trans Australia Airlines (TAA), later Australian Airlines, to operate between state capitals and large regional airports.

That kept out most competition on the most lucrative routes and left Qantas to fly international routes.

In December 1985, regional airline East-West Airlines launched its second High Court challenge to this monopoly, with the government opting to fight the case on principle because of its potential implications for other statutory monopolies.

But it noted that an independent review of domestic aviation was under way, with a report due in late 1986.

That report was scathing of this cosy set-up, citing high and stable profits for airlines, relatively low labour productivity and arrangements which disadvantaged consumers by encouraging airlines to serve business markets to the detriment of leisure markets.

In June 1987, the government said it would give the required notice to end this agreement.

In a submission to cabinet, then transport minister Gareth Evans said the Australian airline industry was now well developed by world standards.

"The trunk airlines no longer need absolute protection from domestic competition. Detailed economic regulation can no longer help, and may hinder, the achievement of our broader economic and social objectives," he said.

In line with its reformist agenda, Labor was looking hard at the abundance of government business enterprises and it launched the reviews which led to corporatisation of all and eventually privatisation of most.

That includes organisation such as Telstra and Qantas.

"(This) was a huge step down the economic rationalist path and politically it was highly fraught as a result," he told the launch.

Do you remember the days when smoking was allowed on planes? Post your comments below.

AAP

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