Smoke and enjoy the flight
By Nicola Clark International Herald Tribune
Published: September 3, 2006
PARIS If Alexander Schoppmann is right, then where there's smoke, there's a flier.
As more countries ban smoking in public places, his idea might seem malapropos. But Schoppmann, a German entrepreneur, is hoping to turn smokers' umbrage at ever-expanding efforts to stub out their habit into a highflying business proposal: Smoker's International Airways.
As the name suggests, the airline, known as Smintair for short, will probably not be for the faint of lung. The carrier, expected to begin luxury service with only business and first-class seats early next year, plans daily flights between Schoppmann's hometown of Düsseldorf and Tokyo - a 12-hour journey that, for some inveterate smokers, is simply not worth the nicotine-withdrawal headache.
"Many people simply don't travel long distances anymore because they can't smoke," said Schoppmann, 55, who admits to a 30-a-day cigarette habit as well as the occasional cigar. "That has to be why they invented videoconferencing."
It is also about comfort, he insists. "Air travel used to be a luxury experience," Schoppmann said. "Today the prices are exploding, and the service is going down to zilch. We want to bring back the joy of flying."
On-board smoking has been prohibited on most major airlines for years: Since 2000, all of the world's busiest international routes have been essentially smoke-free. Within the United States, the government has banned in-flight smoking for almost two decades. Most European carriers are not required by law to ban smoking but have voluntarily introduced no-smoking policies. In Japan, carriers stopped allowing smoking on most flights in the late 1990s.
Smoking bans on long-haul flights, though, are not just cruel and unusual as far as Schoppmann is concerned - they are downright repressive.
"Considering the amount of money I put on the table for the ticket, I don't understand why somebody should be able to tell me I can't do what I like," he said.
By starting with service between Germany and Japan, two of the world's most smoker-filled countries, Schoppmann said he expected Smintair to profit from the steady flow of business travel between the two. While it might seem a bit out of the way, Düsseldorf - sometimes referred to as Tokyo on the Rhine - is home to a Japanese population of more than 15,000, the third-largest in Europe, after those in London and Paris. Roughly 300 Japanese companies have European headquarters in or around Düsseldorf.
According to the International Air Transport Association, more than a million passengers traveled between Japan and Germany in 2004, a figure that is expected to increase by an average of 3.6 percent a year through 2009. While the majority of Japanese visitors to Germany are tourists, fully half of the Germans traveling to Japan are there on business.
What's more, about one-quarter of Germans smoke, while government surveys say 49 percent of men and 14 percent of women in Japan smoke.
"We expect all of our flights to be overbooked," Schoppmann said.
Despite his deep empathy with smoking travelers, Schoppmann said Smintair's raison d'être was not simply to create a haven for nicotine addicts. Smintair is also promoting its exclusivity, offering only business and first- class seats. Its two 747s - normally configured to seat around 415 people - will be fitted with just 138 seats.
In some ways, Schoppmann's business plan is directed at the same type of clientele that used to fly the Concorde until Air France and British Airways canceled the supersonic service in 2003. Smoking was always allowed on Concorde flights, where passengers paid upward of $9,000 for a seat.
On Smintair, Schoppmann said, ticket prices will be in line with those of the German flag carrier Lufthansa, whose Web site recently offered a nonstop business-class ticket from Frankfurt to Tokyo for €4,298, or $5,500, and €6,452 for first class.
Even with smoking statistics in its favor, some experts say Smintair is a gamble. Past attempts to create smokers' airlines in the United States have come to naught. In 1988, when Congress banned smoking on all flights of less than two hours, a group of Texas-based investors sought to set up the Great American Smokers' Club, a members- only charter service between Dallas and Houston. Despite signing up more than 6,000 members, the venture failed after regulators refused to grant it a license.
Five years later, after the U.S. ban was extended to include long-haul flights, a similar venture in Florida, Smokers Express, failed to raise enough money from investors.
"These specialized things frequently come to grief," Daniel Solon, an analyst at Avmark, a commercial aviation consultancy, said of Smintair.
Moreover, there is the question of whether smokers would take the trouble to make their way to Düsseldorf just to take a 12-hour smoking flight.
"If I'm in London making a lot of money in the City and I decide that I want to go to Japan, I'm not sure it's worth my while," Solon said. "Unless you've really got a heavy habit, most smokers should be able to handle 12 hours on the plane without lighting up."
Schoppmann said he had lined up nearly €300 million since May from private investors in Europe and the Middle East. The company expects to apply for an operating license with German regulators by late September and hopes to eventually hire about 275 people.
Germany and Japan permit smoking in workplaces, so the argument that many European countries and the United States have used to ban smoking - the health hazard to employees - would not be relevant there.
Smintair's safety prohibitions will bar smoking during takeoff and landing, nor will it be permitted in the toilets.
Michael Lamberty, a spokesman for Lufthansa, declined to comment on Smintair's prospects. "Let's wait for the smoke to clear," he said. All Lufthansa flights have been nonsmoking since 1989, he said, adding, "Passengers and we as an airline have been happy with it."
Meanwhile, the anti-smoking movement appears to be gaining ground in Germany. The country's consumer affairs minister, Horst Seehofer, said in July that the government planned after the summer break to propose a nationwide ban on smoking in public places beginning next year.
"I would love that," Schoppmann said. "They are playing into our hands."
Original article can be viewed at: http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/09/03/business/smoke.php