Aviation watchdog JonNYC was first to note that a cabin interior issue had come up with United Airlines Airbus A321neo aircraft. He highlighted a delayed flight where the aircraft was being swapped with a Boeing 737, and then another Airbus A321neo flight swapped, and then another.
but in any case, several confirmations, some issue with UA's Neos – thanks to those who sent this along!
— JonNYC (@xJonNYC) February 12, 2024
Jason Rabinowitz then looks and sees that 3 of United’s A321neo aircraft are on the ground, and all flights the rest of the day that were scheduled to be operated by these planes have been given new aircraft (of a different type).
There's definitely something going on with United's A321neo fleet right now. Only two are in the air and all later scheduled A321neo flights for today are swapped to 737 and A319/320 due to some sort of "operational inspection." https://t.co/PJ9i1QRzn4 pic.twitter.com/nQU7I4e1WK
— Jason Rabinowitz (@AirlineFlyer) February 12, 2024
And Seth Miller flags what is happening. It turns out there’s a stupid regulation that hasn’t been needed in decades, and United ran afoul of it. Miller points out,
US Code 14 CFR § 25.791(a) requires that “no smoking” signs on airplanes be operable by crew, despite smoking being prohibited on board for decades.
Specifically, the rule says that “Signs which notify when smoking is prohibited must be operable by a member of the flightcrew” and United’s signs on these aircraft are always on and therefore not ‘operable’ by a member of the crew.
United has sought an exemption to allow the no smoking sign, which must always be on because smoking is not allowed, to always be on.
The airline’s Boeing 737, 757, 767, and 777 aircraft already have no smoking signs “hardwired to stay illuminated at all times” according to the filing. United just forgot to ask for the same regulatory waiver for the A321neo as for these aircraft. This is a new plane type for the airline. They have 5 currently in service, with another 125 on order.
A lot of things require specific FAA permission which may not seem obvious. For instance, American Airlines gave away that they were adding doors to their business class seats on new aircraft when they asked the FAA for an exemption to permit this. The FAA initially rejected the request because the letterhead American used didn’t include its mailing address (they presumably could have just asked their own American Airlines Certificate Management Office instead).
Similarly, American needed FAA permission to hand out hand sanitizer at the start of the pandemic, even though passengers were permitted to bring on their own and the FAA had already determined this was safe.
United Airlines was the first airline to create a nonsmoking section back in 1971. Delta was the first to fully ban smoking worldwide in 1994. U.S. airlines were no longer permitted to allow smoking on any flight starting in 2000. Yet planes still have ashtrays! You’ll usually find them in or near the lavatory, because customers may smoke even though it’s illegal to do so. Passengers need to be told when not to smoke. And crewmembers need to be able to turn on that sign. If they can’t turn it on, because it is always on, then an exemption from the rule must be requested. Oops!