LOS ANGELES, DEC. 31 -- The Great Airline Smoking Revolution of 1988, a time of tense readjustment to a new social order, began in spectacular fashion -- if somewhat early -- Wednesday night on TWA Flight 853 from Boston to Los Angeles.
When it was all over, 11 passengers had lit cigarettes and booed loudly to protest a temporary smoking ban, a flight attendant had filed criminal charges, the captain had radioed Los Angeles for police and four protesters were led away for questioning.
That such passions could be enflamed nearly four months before a scheduled federal ban on smoking on short flights suggests that the airlines face a difficult transition. "It's a tough one," said Robert Blattner, a Trans World Airlines spokesman in St. Louis who recounted the saga of Flight 853.
His airline has four months to plan for the era of no smoking on flights of less than two hours and to work out a way to handle longer flights -- such as Wednesday's six-hour Boston to Los Angeles run -- where federal regulations occasionally require smoking bans in some smoking sections.
But one airline, Delta, has decided to leap into the unknown immediately.
The Atlanta-based carrier, whose California operations have expanded greatly in the last year, announced Monday that it will honor a new California law banning smoking on all air, bus and train trips within the state beginning New Year's Day.
The state's other major airlines have declared the state law invalid and agreed to honor only the new federal law, applying to all short flights, beginning April 23. Delta spokesman Jim Lundy said his company considered the new state law a sign of popular sentiment here and decided to begin banning smoking on California flights to test procedures and customer relations involved in smoothing the switch to the new federal rules.
"We thought it was a good way to get our feet wet," Lundy said.
That interest in testing new waters was noticeably absent on TWA Flight 853 five hours after it took off from Logan Airport in Boston Wednesday night. The problem began when TWA officials discovered, after assigning smokers as usual to seats in the last six rows of coach and the last five rows of business class, that they had an unexpected glut of nonsmokers who also would have to sit in those rows. There were 272 passengers and 275 seats, giving them little leeway.
Under federal regulations, airlines faced with this situation must declare any row with a nonsmoker to be a nonsmoking row. The airline announced, as the passengers boarded, that smoking would be banned in coach and business sections. A small smoking section in first class survived.
The flight's few smokers held their tempers for five hours, although some airline officials think the usual nicotine withdrawal symptoms, plus alcohol, may have gradually weakened their self-restraint.
Somewhere over the West, they snapped.
"A group in the back -- we don't know if it was individuals or organized -- demanded that they be allowed to smoke, and in the end, they all lit up," Blattner said. When flight attendants tried to tell them to stop, "an altercation broke out," he said.
"One flight attendant did get pushed and shoved, and she did file charges," Blattner said. The captain, having gone back at some point to assess the situation, radioed Los Angeles that police should meet the plane -- the usual procedure in such circumstances.
When the plane landed at 8:48 p.m. PST, some passengers walked into the terminal shouting "Don't fly TWA! Don't fly TWA!" one airline official at Los Angeles International Airport said. Four passengers were taken by police and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents for questioning, airline and airport officials said. The others involved "managed to slip away," Blattner said.
A Los Angeles police spokesman said a criminal complaint was filed against one passenger, alleging that he disturbed the peace.
The spokesman said the passenger allegedly started the rebellion at the back of Flight 853, used an obscenity in addressing a flight attendant and then shoved her, leading her to sign the complaint.
The passenger was released without formal arrest, and the report of the alleged misdemeanor was sent to the city attorney for consideration.
FBI spokesman Jim Neilson said his agency was investigating if interference with an airline crew member, a federal crime, had occurred.
What will TWA do if this happens again?
"I guarantee you," Blattner said, "that there are a lot of people looking into that today."