United Airlines grounds Airbus A321neo fleet over antiquated no smoking sign law

The planes feature automated signage, but the 1990 rule requires manual operation.

Prisma by Dukas via Getty Images

United Airlines briefly grounded its fleet of brand-new Airbus A321neo planes, according to a report by Gizmodo. This had nothing to do with safety, as was the case with that recent Boeing controversy. Rather, it was due to the aircraft running afoul of a 1990 regulation regarding “no smoking” signs.

The 1990 ruling mandates that “no smoking” signs found on aircraft must be manually operated by the crew. The newly-designed Airbus A321neo features software that automatically displays the signage during a flight, so the crew doesn’t switch it on and off. That’s pretty much it. Meanwhile, smoking itself was fully banned from both domestic and international flights nearly 25 years ago.

Automated signage systems are not new. Many air travel companies bypass the 1990 regulation by applying for an exemption with the Federal Aviation Authority. United filed for this exemption on behalf of its entire fleet back in 2020, which was granted. There’s just one problem. The company's Airbus A321neo is so new that it doesn’t fall under the protection of that exemption. These planes just started flying the friendly skies two months ago.

United is seeking permission from the FAA to add the Airbus A321neo to the pre-existing exemption. The federal agency has given United permission to fly its fleet of A321neos, five in all, while evaluating this request.

“As the FAA noted, this is not a safety of flight issue. Our five A321neos were briefly out of service on Monday while we worked through this issue with the FAA, resulting in a handful of delays but no cancellations as we swapped that flying to other aircraft types in an effort to minimize disruption for our customers,” United wrote in a statement.

There’s just one question left to ask. It costs around $130 million to manufacture just one A321neo aircraft, so United spent $650 million to make this fleet. That’s a whole lot of cheddar, so why didn’t it get this exemption stuff sorted before the company started booking flights?

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