February 28, 2024


After causing a stir by mysteriously grounding its new Airbus A321neo planes on Monday, United Airlines wants people to know the decision has nothing to do with safety and isn’t even that exciting. Rather, it has to do with the aircrafts’ “No Smoking” signs, which are required by a 1990 law to be operated by the flight crew.

That’s not the case on the A321neo, which has software that keeps the “No Smoking” sign turned on continuously during flights, like many other aircraft in United’s fleet. In 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration approved United’s request for an exemption to the federal regulation requiring the flight crew to manually operate the “No Smoking” sign.

There’s just one problem. United’s 2020 exemption only applies to the aircraft it listed in its request at that time, which didn’t include the A321neo. United only recently received the first models of its order of A321neos and started flying them last December.

In a statement to Gizmodo, United confirmed that it had grounded all five of its A321neos on Monday while it seeks permission to add the aircraft to its existing exemption. The company added that the FAA has given United permission to fly its fleet of A321neos while the agency evaluates the airline’s request. It’s unclear why United waited until this week to submit its exemption request for the A321neos.

“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 stated.

An FAA spokesperson told Gizmodo that the agency was working quickly to resolve a non-safety issue that United had reported on its A321neos.

In its 2020 approval of United’s request for an exemption, the FAA noted that the “No Smoking” sign requirement was instituted when smoking was permitted on some flights at certain times, but that regulations had clearly changed.

“The FAA finds that ‘No Smoking’ signs that are automatically and continuously illuminated are as safe as ‘No Smoking’ signs that may be illuminated only at certain times,” the FAA said at that time. “A continuously illuminated ‘No Smoking’ sign that is legible to each person seated in the cabin achieves the purpose of informing occupants of the smoking prohibition.”

Smoking on planes has been banned in the U.S. in some form since at least the 1980s—with the outright ban on the practice coming in 2000.

This article originally appeared on Gizmodo.





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