German Entrepreneur's Glamour Airline: Nicotine Niche or Pipe Dream?

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

DUESSELDORF, Germany -- At the international airport in this western German city, smokers are shunned. If you want to light up, you're restricted to a handful of bars in the terminal, or else stuck puffing on the dingy street outside.

Soon, however, tobacco lovers from around the world could be beating a path to Duesseldorf. A start-up airline based here plans to offer long-haul luxury flights -- to Asia, at first -- that cater to smokers, countering a decades-long global trend that has made it impossible to enjoy a cigarette on most passenger flights.

The new airline is called, naturally, Smoker's International Airways, or Smintair for short. The founder is a local entrepreneur who promises a return to the days when air travel was considered glamorous, when stewardesses were happy to bring you a glass of scotch, and when smoking in the lavatory didn't risk criminal prosecution.

"Other airlines have lost every kind of sympathy for their passengers by leaps and bounds. They treat them like cattle," said Alexander W. Schoppmann, a former stockbroker who started Smintair. "What all of those carriers want these days is for you to stay in the seat, and you better bloody well stay there, and don't even ask for anything to eat or drink. You can't do anything."

On Smintair, according to Schoppmann, there will be plenty of room for passengers to indulge their vices, whether it's smoking, drinking or even small-stakes gambling. Fliers will be able to mingle at bars on the upper or lower deck of a Boeing 747, which will be reconfigured to be so roomy that there will be space for just 138 passengers, instead of the 400 or so typically seated by most carriers.

The only thing banned on Smintair will be cramped, cheap economy-class seats, Schoppmann said. Everyone will sit in either first or business class -- at round-trip fares to Japan between $6,700 and $14,500 -- making Smintair the latest entry in a growing number of new airlines limiting themselves to high-end service.

When Schoppmann announced plans for his smokers' airline a year ago in Germany, he was met with ridicule. Aviation analysts questioned whether his business plan was viable. Anti-smoking groups blasted him for spreading carcinogens in the skies.

But Smintair has gradually moved closer to reality. The airline has won approval for a coveted landing slot at Duesseldorf International Airport and has permission to fly to its first destination, Nagoya airport in central Japan.

Schoppmann said he expects to finalize the purchase of his first jumbo jet in the next few weeks from a South African Airways subsidiary. If all goes well, he said, Smoker's International Airways will make its maiden voyage early next year.

He hopes to acquire one or two more Boeing 747s by next summer, which would allow for daily flights between Germany and Japan, and possibly other routes.

Paradoxically, Schoppmann claims that the air on Smintair will be cleaner than on other carriers. He is planning to install an extra-strength air-conditioning system that will constantly pump in fresh air from outside, as opposed to the partly recirculated cabin air that wafts through most planes.

"People think the cabin will be full of smoke, which is bollocks," he said. "The air on Smintair will be more refreshing than on a normal flight. You will not even notice the smell of somebody smoking a cigarette or pipe in the next seat."

Not that there's anything inherently unhealthy about tobacco smoke, insists Schoppmann, who adds that he doesn't believe a word of the warning labels printed on tobacco products. He's already gotten into a public spat with the World Health Organization, dismissing public health concerns over secondhand smoke as "the biggest scam of all times."

"I'm just another healthy smoker," said Schoppmann, who inhales about a pack a day. "I haven't seen a sick smoker in my life. The only thing I see are sick nonsmokers, and they are always sick with all sorts of crap."

Smintair picked Japan as its first destination for several reasons. First, it's a long flight -- about 12 hours one way, which is a long time for nicotine addicts to go without a fix. Second, the market has potential. About a third of all Japanese adults smoke, as do a quarter in Germany. Also, Duesseldorf has the third-biggest population of Japanese expatriates in Europe, with about 20,000 people.

"If they do go to Nagoya, it sounds great," said Tetsuo Oyama, a sales executive for the Hotel Nikko in Duesseldorf. "Personally, I'm a nonsmoker, so I wouldn't like a smoking flight. But as you know, lots of Asians do smoke and many Japanese might like this route."

There are still some skeptics who doubt Smintair will get off the ground. Schoppmann had originally promised to launch this summer; he said the primary hurdle has been a tight market for serviceable aircraft.

Hans-Henning Muehlke, a spokesman for the German Federal Aviation Commission, said Smintair is still in the early stages of applying for an operator's license and predicted it could take a year for approval. "We have to confirm that he's willing and fit, and can fulfill all the European regulations," Muehlke said.

There are no international regulations that prohibit smoking in the skies, although some countries, such as the United States, have banned it on passenger flights in their airspace. Most carriers voluntarily adopted no-smoking policies years ago. It's unclear whether Smintair might be affected by new German laws that restrict smoking in public places and are scheduled to go into effect this fall, Muehlke said.

Schoppmann, who has no previous experience in the aviation industry, said that he's the sole investor so far but that he has received approval for loan guarantees from the transport ministry in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

If Smintair's business does catch fire, Schoppmann has dreams to add routes to destinations such as the United States, Johannesburg, Sydney and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Whether there are enough fliers willing to pay for the privilege of smoking in the skies remains to be seen.

"I don't find it comfortable when many people smoke in one place, like a lounge," said Monika Bense, 43, a smoker who was waiting for a flight to Tunisia. "Is it too much to ask for smokers not to light up for eight or 10 hours?"

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