United Airlines Just Grounded A Fleet Of Planes Because Its No Smoking Signs Don’t Turn Off

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.

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).

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!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ve been on flights with several seat belt lights which were burned out, about 50%, and a few no smoking lights. I didn’t report it, as we were headed to an out station, and that could have taken the plane out of service, ruining someone’s day, This was on an older plane which likely had light bulbs instead of LEDs. I’m not sure what the MEL for number of operating seat belt signs.

    Still, one would think the FAA could get around to changing the rule to allow always-on lights without requesting an exception.

  2. And this is the reason, in part, why Delta’s aircraft increasingly have replaced the no smoking sign with WiFi signs.
    Thus the overhead signs now include WiFi and Seat belt.

    stupid rule but it is still a rule. You get the rule changed before you hard wire your desired solution.

  3. Government is slow and doesn’t always move until pushed. So obsolete rules and laws stay on the books. Most are ignored–either because they are blatantly illegal (like racist deed covenants) or completely obsolete (laws on covered wagons, shooting when encountering “Indian war parties” and the like), or have just become dead letters over time, like some pornography ordinances. But the FAA does enforce everything because its mandate is safety, and being a bureaucracy this is the sort of cross-purpose stuff that gets into the works. What is needed is for someone to go through the Federal Aviation Regulations with knowledgeable industry/pilot/cabin crew etc. people and get everything in logical consistency, and then have the revisions formally approved. Don’t hold your breath.

  4. @drrichard
    My hometown has a law still in place that says a woman driver must have a man walking 20 paces in front of her swinging a lantern yelling woman driver. When a reporter showed it to the police chief (in a joking manner) he said that under no circumstances would he try and enforce that one.

  5. The 787 no smoking signs are also hardwired and have no cockpit switch to turn them off. In 2024, it would be nice to see the FAA change this regulation.

  6. Amazes me that the safety demonstration still includes how to buckle a seat belt (which people have been doing over 50 years and is obvious). Shows you how slow the regs are to change

  7. Certain rules are intended to be followed exactly but stuff like this is just stupid.

    When I worked for the government I once had my parking fees for a conference rejected because I did not subject a request for gas mileage reimbursement. I didn’t do that because I knew the amount would be negligible since you could only get the difference between your normal commute and the distance to the conference. So I resubmitted it with the gas mileage and got my parking (around $120 for the week) and my gas mileage (maybe $5 in total).

  8. Please give us larger government with more power and more bureaucracy so that some idiot looking to justify their own existence can destroy millions in economic activity.

  9. I can remember flying as a teenager (1976) where there was a smoking section and was amazed that people were actually smoking on an airplane. So I guess we could bring a lighter and/or matches on board?

  10. They should re-allow smoking on airlines, if anybody has a problem, just let them crack the windows.

  11. It is true, here’s the full text: “If smoking is to be prohibited, there must be at least one placard so stating that is legible to each person seated in the cabin. If smoking is to be allowed, and if the crew compartment is separated from the passenger compartment, there must be at least one sign notifying when smoking is prohibited. Signs which notify when smoking is prohibited must be operable by a member of the flightcrew and, when illuminated, must be legible under all probable conditions of cabin illumination to each person seated in the cabin”. Early in my career as a practicing engineer for a Multinational, I worked with the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) all the time. What many folks don’t realize is that they are all online, free to read for anyone with the time. Here’s the home page for the National Archives Site (which tracks changes): https://www.ecfr.gov/; and the specific address for 14 CFR § 25.791(a): https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-14/chapter-I/subchapter-C/part-25

  12. The no smoking rule on Delta actually saved a lot of money as the tar buildup on the outflow valves was causing lots of maintenance issues. The same can be said of the cleaning of the cabin to rid the smoke odor. The L-1011 had a MEL item for the little ashtrays in the seat armrest. If any ashtray was missing, the jet was grounded until a replacement was installed. Once smoking was banned, the ashtrays were tack welded closed and the MEL went away. Now, we can breathe better on any flight. Gawd help us if cellular phone calls are allowed. Can you imagine sitting next to some yammering moron, listening to a one sided conversation for more than 2 minutes? Well, that’s a FCC and FAA rule. Two rules for the price of one.

  13. In 2016 I was on a plane that still had ashtrays at every seat.

    I took an Azerbajan Air flight from New York to Tel Aviv with a stop in Baku. The flight from NY to Baku was a brand new 787 but the next flight was a really old plane with ashtrays. AC was broken too. I did like the airline culture overall tho, as well as the free inflight alcohol. (on the drinks cart. I was in main cabin)

  14. Sweet jeebus. Vogons unite. How on earth did this rear its ugly head?

    And why does it matter? This is a non-flying non essential issue.

  15. In response to AC’s comment regarding the (mostly) outdated seatbelt demonstration, United frequently flies connecting passengers from Nigeria out of Houston. The airplane rides are often literally the first time they have used seat belts.

  16. Couldn’t the pilot, a crew member, just flip off all electrical circuits and get the no smoking signs to go out?

  17. I remember when United gave a small 4 or 5-pack of Winston cigarettes along with every meal served in first class. Those were the days.

  18. Delta was the first airline to completely ban smoking in 1994? Hold on, that’s not true. MuseAir (est. 1981) never allowed smoking in their MD-80’s. It was quite nice to board a MC MD-80 at 0600 that didn’t smell like a dirty ashtray. They were a little ahead of the No Smoking trend.

  19. The Herb apologists like to retcon him away to nothing, but Lamar Muse should be considered one of the greatest airline executives of his time, and beyond.

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