When it comes to smoking on airplanes, the Civil Aeronautics Board is almost ready to throw up its hands and quit -- making rules, that is, not smoking.

In May 1973, the CAB, responding to requests from public groups, approved rules that required no-smoking sections on commercial airliners in each class of service. The airlines had to provide enough seats to handle all passengers who demanded not to be seated next to someone who was smoking. A little-known part of those rules required that cigar and pipe smokers be isolated way in the back of the smoking section.

That initial effort, however, apparently didn't satisfy anyone. It just spawned other proposals, according to a notice in the Nov. 28 Federal Register (page 79085).

A new rule was proposed to establish a special section of the plane for "susceptible passengers," those with asthma or other respiratory ailments who wanted to be as far away from the smokers as possible.

Another proposal was filed to establish "buffer zones" separating the avid nonsmokers from the avid smokers.

The cigar and pipe smokers, unhappy that most airlines -- by their own choice, not by CAB rules -- don't allow them to indulge their habit at all, came in to demand a special location on airplanes for themselves, supposedly right by the air vents. Another idea: Other passengers would be asked if they minded anyone lighting up a cigar or a pipe -- and if just one did, no lighting up would be permitted.

Then the nonsmoking groups came in with even more radical ideas, including a ban on cigar and pipe smoking and a ban on all smoking on aircraft with fewer than 30 seats or on flights with short flying times.

An incident where a late-arriving passenger demanded a no-smoking seat when none was available forced the CAB to propose letting an airline refuse to provide a no-smoking seat to a standby passenger or one who checks in less than five minutes before flight time.

Late in November, the CAB met to consider all these proposals. It deferred action on them and decided to schedule debate on just two propositions instead: a rule that would bar any type of smoking from all commercial passenger planes, and one that would throw out all current rules on smoking and let each airline come up with its own solution.

A CAB source said recently he did not expect either of those ideas to pass, but arguing over them in public would force the pressure groups to realize there has to be some end to the haggling.

I wonder if they'll have a special nonsmoking section at the hearing . . . or bar smoking altogether . . . or have a section for asthmatics . . . and what about pipe smokers?