United Airlines grounded its brand new fleet of Airbus A321neo on Monday because pilots are unable to turn the ‘no smoking signs’ off even though these signs must remain illuminated at all times when passengers are onboard.
Aviation insider xJonNYC first spotted the temporary grounding on social media site X, and a short time later, aviation journalist Seth Miller discovered that United Airlines had asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a special exemption.
Smoking was banned on domestic US flights back in 1990, and a year later, the ban was extended to all international flights, but when officials wrote up the rules, they decided that there should still be a way for pilots to manually turn off the illuminated ‘no smoking signs’ that appear throughout all passenger plane cabins.
Over the years, U.S. airlines have sought and been granted exemptions to these rules, allowing them to hardwire the illuminated ‘no smoking sign’ to remain on at all times, removing the ability of pilots to override this feature.
In fact, United noted in its letter to the FAA on Monday that the ‘no smoking signs’ on all of its Boeing aircraft can’t be turned off.
The computer software on the new Airbus A321neo aircraft, which recently joined United’s fleet, is programmed to keep the seat belt signs switched on at all times with no pilot override, but it would appear that United may have failed to get the necessary exemption before putting them into service.
In a statement, United told us: “We are removing our five Airbus A321neo aircraft from service while we seek FAA approval for the “No Smoking” sign to remain automatically illuminated rather than operated from the cockpit.”
“We’re working to minimize the disruption for customers, and we expect to cover all of today’s A321neo flying with other aircraft types, resulting in no cancellations due to this issue today. We hope to have these aircraft flying again shortly.”
Later on Monday, the FAA gave permission for United to put its A321neos back into service while it evaluates the exemption request.
Miller notes that both Allegiant Airlines and Frontier have recently filed exemption requests for software-restricted ‘no smoking’ signs on their Airbus A320 fleets, although both airlines haven’t grounded their aircraft while awaiting the exemption.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.