German Entrepreneur Proposes Airline Just for Smokers

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A German entrepreneur wants to create a nostalgic smokers' haven above the clouds by starting a nicotine-friendly airline offering Cuban cigars, caviar and flight attendants in designer uniforms — as well as smoking allowed in every seat.

Alexander Schoppmann, a 55-year-old former stockbroker, has come up with a business plan for Smoker's International Airways, or Smintair, which he says will offer flights between his home town of Duesseldorf in western Germany and Tokyo.

It's all about service, he says — and that includes helping people avoid long hours confined without a cigarette break during a long-haul flight.

"I've been an airline passenger for 50 years," said Schoppmann, perhaps not surprisingly a smoker with a 30-cigarette per day habit. "It made me very angry that the gap between service and price became so big with regular airlines. Especially in the first class and business class, service is at its lowest point ever."

Schoppmann said in an interview he plans to start flying in March with three leased Boeing Co. 747s, two of them plying the route and one as a backup. The idea is to bring back "the luxury of the old days" by using only 138 business- and first-class seats on a plane that has space for more than 400 people.

TVs, DVDs, telephone and Internet access and flight attendants "in uniforms designed by famous couturiers" are just a few of the frills.

Schoppmann has not started selling tickets yet. He says he's got investors willing to provide $81 million to get started — including the $50 million he'll need to get a license from the German government — and sponsors ready to sell luxury goods on board.

"We are on the same price level with Lufthansa, British Airways and other airlines that operate on similar routes," he said. "Frankfurt-Tokyo and back costs $12,500 with Lufthansa for the first class and $8,125 for business class both ways. And those are exactly our prices."

The German entrepreneur said he plans to supplement ticket revenue by selling luxury products in an extra lounge on the upper deck and also put to use the cargo hold. "The cargo rates to Tokyo and back are among the highest in the world," he said.

Schoppmann recalls his flights in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as "a luxurious experience above the clouds," with room to relax and Cuban cigars on offer.

Aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., expressed skepticism about Schoppmann's chances of getting over regulatory and financial hurdles.

"You can't start flying between two countries just on the basis of a business plan. You have to deal with the regulatory authorities in both countries ... arrange for overflight and whatever else," he said.

Schoppmann said applying for an operating license is not as complicated as one might think. "The German Aviation Authority only wants you to prove funds sufficient for a three-months undertaking in case no money comes in," he said. "And that's all available."

Aboulafia also said using jumbo jets "is very ambitious. No other premium airline that I know of has ever started with 747s. ... You're betting that you've got enough of a niche customer group to support you."

He said it will be interesting to see whether enough people will opt for Smintair over a carrier like Lufthansa, which has more frequent flights, just because they like to smoke.

Schoppmann said nonsmokers are welcome and would even find the cabin air much more refreshing than on any other flight because the airline will pay the added cost of a system to add outside air to the cabin air conditioning.

He insists that nonsmokers would face no hazards aboard his planes. "Second-hand smoke doesn't exist," he said. "At the most there is something that smells, but perfumes smell, as well."

Dr. Eva Kalbheim, spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization German Cancer Aid, disagrees. "The latest numbers we have from the German Cancer Research Center show that 3,300 people in Germany die every year as a result of passive smoking," she said.

And flight attendants would run substantial health risks, she said.

Asked how certain he is that Smintair will take off as planned in March, Schoppmann said:

"How certain is it that I will be alive by then? That's of course a philosophical question. The way we are positioned right now, it is certain."