Smokers' airline ready for takeoff


So you're a wreck as you fly from Baltimore to Boston, unable to take a single puff. Relax. Smokers Express Airlines may be coming this way.

Dozens of small carriers start up each year, hoping to find a niche in the fiercely competitive airline industry. And the Florida-based Smokers Express has got a gimmick designed to lure disgruntled puffers who're forced by federal law to extinguish their smokes on nearly all domestic flights.

By operating as a club, Smokers Express, just like charter flights, would be exempt from federal regulations that prohibit smoking on domestic flights six hours or less.

"There are 54 million smokers that are pretty well being treated like second-class citizens," said George "Mickey" Richardson, the Cocoa Beach, Fla., one pack-a-day Merit smoker and former Disney World promoter who is launching the carrier.

Pending approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, the airline will have several DC-9s in the air by Aug. 1, flying two daily, round-trip flights from Space Coast Executive Airport near Kennedy Space Center to Orlando, Dallas, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Atlantic City, N.J.

By January, it could be flying out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, perhaps using it as its Northeast hub, says Mr. Richardson.

"We're definitely coming to BWI," he said.

In addition to uninterrupted smoking from takeoff to landing, Smokers Express promises competitive fares, free cigarettes, free headphones and movies, a free Lotto ticket, steaks and hamburgers -- and no screaming, aisle-racing, chair-kicking children (passengers must be 21 or older).

And in a world where smokers have been relegated, segregated and banned altogether, Smokers Express is a breath of smoky air for die-hards.

"Obviously this is welcome news for us," says James T. Radford, president of United Smokers Association of America of Frankfort, Ky. "The airline industry doesn't seem to admit to the fact that tickets sales are down as a result of smoking bans."

L Already, 2,000 people have ponied up the $25 membership fee.

But this endeavor is not just about planeloads of Marlboro men. It's about jobs, says Mr. Richardson, for unemployed airline workers with little hope of returning to major carriers.

"This is really more than smoking an airlines," he said. "It's putting a carrier back in the air and putting Americans back to work."

Smokers Express is the brainchild of Mr. Richardson and and William Walts, another Florida businessman who came up with the idea during a flight to his high school reunion in San Francisco last year.

"He had a lousy flight, a lot of bad food, and he couldn't smoke," said Mr. Richardson. "Then somebody told him he could have smoked in the cockpit since pilots are allowed. Then he really got hot."

If it's profitable, Smokers Express promises to share its proceeds with such groups as the National Kidney Association, the Wildlife Federation of America and the Ronald McDonald House.

For non-smokers, the new carrier seems like a good way to keep some smokers 30,000 feet farther away.

"I think it's fine as long as they're not hurting anyone else," said Julia Carol, co-director of the Berkeley, Calif. Americans for Non-Smokers Rights. "But personally, I can't imagine being on a plane with 100 people all lighting up."

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