NEW YORK -- Virgin Atlantic Airways said Tuesday it will introduce four new non-smoking flights on its New York-to-London route, becoming the first carrier to ban smoking on international flights to and from the United States.
'The extra flights offered by Virgin Atlantic from Newark will give non-smokers the chance to breathe nicotine-free air all the way to the United Kingdom,' the company said.
Virgin Atlantic emphasized, however, that travelers wishing to smoke could still enjoy a smoking section aboard existing Virgin Atlantic flights out of Newark and John F. Kennedy airport in New York to Gatwick.
The British carrier said it will enforce the non-smoking ban on four new weekly flights between Newark and Gatwick airports, beginning May 18.
Virgin Atlantic currently operates one flight daily, Thursday through Sunday, between Newark, one of the three main airports serving the New York area, and Gatwick, the second gate to London after Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport. The airline has one flight daily from John F. Kennedy to Gatwick.
'Statistics show that at least 110,000 people die each year as a result of smoking-induced diseases,' said Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard Branson. 'That is a horrific number in every sense and one which we felt we could not ignore.'
Branson also has declared a ban on cigarette advertising in Virgin Atlantic's in-flight magazine, Hot Air, named after the chairman's strong interest in hot air balloon travel.
Lori Levin, a spokeswoman for the airline, said Virgin Atlantic's decision to introduce non-smoking flights reflected the results of a survey conducted among passengers.
'About 55 percent of the passengers polled said they would be happy to board a non-smoking flight for their next trip,' Levin said. 'This is an alternative to non-smoking sections, which are not fully satisfactory for health-conscious travelers.'
The American Cancer Society hailed the decision.
'It is a very welcome decision. We congratulate them for having done this, and we hope that other airlines will follow suit,' said Joanne Schellenbach, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.
'Some of the international flights are not longer than some of the domestic flights, and there is no reason why international travelers should not be given the same consideration,' Schellenbach said. 'Hopefully, the airlines will see the value of such a measure.'
Smoking currently is banned aboard domestic flights of less than two hours in the United States. The ban will be extended to cover all domestic flights of less than six hours beginning Feb. 25.
'This represents about 99 percent of all the U.S. flights,' Schellenbach said.
Levin said Virgin Atlantic will continue to conduct in-flight passengers surveys about the ban on smoking and could introduce more smoke-free flights if the results are positive.
'We feel it is right to start with the United States where people are very aware of the dangers linked to smoking,' she said.
'Newark is the first of our routes on which we are able to carry out this trial, but with increased capacity on our other services and more aircraft, we would hope to extend the nicotine-free alternative to Tokyo, Los Angeles, Miami and New York's John F. Kennedy.'