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April 18, 2024


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United currently operates a fleet of five A321neo aircraft, all of which were grounded yesterday because of a regulatory compliance issue. The non-smoking signs in the A321neo remain on permanently, as they do on several other aircraft in United’s fleet. But the regulations call for an operable switch to turn the signs off and on. 

Somehow, in bringing in the new fleet, United forgot to request a formal waiver for this new aircraft type from the FAA, which is necessary to make the aircraft legally airworthy. United does have waivers for their 737, 757, 767, and 777 fleets that also have no smoking signs that remain on permanently.

Of course, smoking has been banned on aircraft for two decades, and a non-smoking sign that is continuously on simply mirrors reality. But when the rules call for a switch, either a switch will be required, or a waiver must be obtained to make the aircraft airworthy. So, because of bureaucratic regulatory gobble-de-gook and no one having the common sense to change an obsolete regulation, several United flights were delayed, as United had to operate them with other aircraft.

Even though smoking hasn’t been allowed for ages, the rules call for a no-smoking sign that can be turned on and off. Were I an inconvenienced customer with a delayed flight over something this stupid, I’d be writing my Congressman asking how government could continue to enforce idiotic rules, while ignoring obvious safety issues in other places. Once again, ineffective government has reared its ugly head in aviation.

You would think this would be an easy fix. Couldn’t United’s CEO Scott Kirby pick up the phone and call Pete Buttigieg and get this done in a simple phone call, followed up by an e-mail authorizing operations with an executive decision to grant an exemption? But the reality is that what we call “common sense” isn’t really that common.

The issue was resolved with temporary permission for United to continue to operate the aircraft about 4 hours after their request for an exemption to the FAA, pending further investigation. However, passengers were delayed over something quite stupid and flew on other aircraft instead of the A321neo.  United is building a larger A321neo fleet and is investigating alternatives to the MAX 10.

The FAA can allow Boeing to build an airplane that caused 346 fatalities or failed to check that they install bolts in the MAX 9 door plug, but will ground airplanes for having a no smoking sign that doesn’t shut off when smoking is always prohibited anyway? FAA leadership has their priorities out of whack. Let’s hope this is brought up in the FAA hearings on Capitol Hill later this week.

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President AirInsight Group LLC

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