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A Dream Goes Up in Smoke : Flying: Freedom Air, for tobacco lovers only, takes flight. But there were more media types stepping off the plane at LAX than paying passengers.


When Marty Stollar booked a seat on the first charter flight of the Freedom Air Smoker Club, he figured he was voting with his pocketbook for smokers' rights.

And, the Toronto developer acknowledges, he really hoped Tuesday morning's inaugural flight, from Chicago to Los Angeles, would be full of puffing partiers.

Stollar didn't figure on celebrity. He had no idea that he'd be interviewed and/or filmed by three major newspapers, a German news service, an international photo agency, CNN, NBC, the BBC and those zany folks from "A Current Affair." And that was before the three-hour, 45-minute flight had reached the Rockies.

But news tips travel faster than a Boeing 727.

So, imagine his surprise when he stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, only to be greeted--as was every male passenger before him--by cries of "Are you Marty Stollar? Can we talk to you?" Yep, a throng of L.A. radio, TV and print reporters had worked out the equation: Stollar + sound bite = story.

Stollar was one of just two real passengers on board. The other was Ruthie Fairchild, who doesn't smoke, but needed to get to Los Angeles quickly and cheaply.

The Clinton, Iowa, woman explained that she was heading west to support her brother, McKinley Lee, at his court appearance Friday. Lee, a bodyguard for rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, has been charged with murder in the Aug. 25 shooting death of a man in the Palms area of West Los Angeles. Lee has acknowledged the shooting but claims that he fired at the victim in self-defense. Mr. Dogg (a.k.a. Calvin Broadus) is similarly charged.

The remaining 34 people on the Freedom flight? Seven crew members, a publicist, 15 media types, 10 Chicago-area travel agents. And the retired United Airlines pilot and Camel (unfiltered) smoker who passionately believes in smokers' rights and bellied up to the bar with some serious dollars to finance three round-trip charters between O'Hare and LAX.

A shell-shocked Stollar--last seen rushing to baggage claim at the Bradley terminal and offering hopes that the interviews were finally over--says he's glad he supported the fledgling enterprise. But somewhere over Kansas, and by then just a correspondence course and thesis away from a doctorate in Media Drive-by Forensics, Stollar wondered aloud if reporters weren't missing a better story. He pointed two rows ahead, where a three-person crew from "A Current Affair" was busy crafting its segment.

And what a show that was.

There's on-air personality and nonsmoker Robin Dorian hacking away at billows of smoke, then hanging ornamental air fresheners and a "No Smoking" sign above her seat. Now she's putting on a small white mask, common to Southern California joggers on smoggy days. As the camera rolls, she reaches into her bag of props for a snorkel mask, then a full-fledged gas mask and a supermarket tabloid. Meanwhile, her sound man, out of camera range, is chain-puffing Marlboros and spewing mass quantities as fast as he can. All they'll have to add is a laugh track.

The masks, though, weren't necessary. Jan Anderson, a nonsmoking travel agent from Elgin, Ill., was surprised how few cigarettes were smoked. The "A Current Affair" air fresheners, she added, bothered her more than the smoke.

For those who may have been disturbed by the smoke, however, changing seats was no problem. There were 130 empty ones.

That's not quite the way that Ted Hall had it planned.

On the night before Flight 1, the Freedom Air founder and president sat in an airport hotel lounge and talked--over coffee and cigarettes--about the desire that had smoldered since 1988, when federal laws limiting smoking on planes were first implemented.

Hall, 60, and Jinni, his nonsmoking wife of seven years, started more serious plotting in December, 1991, checking regulations and crunching numbers through a home computer. The Ramona, Calif., residents devoted time to little else since his retirement in February after 28 years.

Last spring, they decided smokers' charters just might fly and placed a deposit with American Trans Air for test flights. They navigated through government rules and received approval for restricted charters: Passengers must be 21, join the Freedom Air Smoker Club or sign a waiver covering health hazards. (Cheap perfume, maybe, but there would be no crying babies on Freedom's flights.)

On Aug. 4, Hall went public with his plan: Freedom Air Smoker Club would fly three round trips between Chicago and Los Angeles on Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and 12.

The response was outstanding, he says, most calls to his 800 number congratulatory. Media inundated Hall with interview requests he graciously fulfilled. He sent out about 1,000 membership applications ($20 lifetime) and nearly 100 people joined. His only worry then, he confessed Monday, was "trying to figure out how I was going to handle 350 people" on the first flight.

Hall needn't have worried.

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