Passengers on a New York-bound flight sat at San Francisco International Airport for nearly three hours without leaving or receiving any food, but the airline was technically in compliance with federal law, according to company officials.
Delta Flight 1940 was scheduled to leave SFO at 11:40 a.m. Tuesday, but did not take off until 3:31 p.m. due to a logjam at East Coast airports recovering from recent winter storms.
However, according to passenger Juliana Bunim — a former local news editor for The San Francisco -Examiner — once the doors to the aircraft closed, passengers were not offered food for the three hours before takeoff and the plane kept "incrementally moving the departure times so we [could not] get off." The plane did not finish boarding until around 12:30 p.m., according to Bunim.
"It’s an outrage," she said in an e-mail to The Examiner. "No one has offered me pretzels and I might pass out."
A Passenger Bill of Rights was enacted in April following an August 2008 ordeal in Rochester, Minn., in which passengers sat on the tarmac for more than six hours without deplaning.
According to the bill, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, "Carriers are required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories."
However, Chris Kelly Singley, a spokeswoman for Delta Airlines, said the requirement to offer food is not as specific as some might think.
"The crew may have been holding off because they believed they would depart soon — it’s a long flight, they would want to make sure they have enough food for its duration," Singley said. "We are only required to let people off after three hours."
Singley said because Flight 1940 did not leave the gate until 2:06 p.m., technically Delta employees had until 5:06 p.m. to comply with the law.
"Before 2:06, they were at a gate and could have gotten off," she said. It was at 2:06 p.m. "when the clock starts ticking."
The airline industry has been struggling to return to normal after a fierce snowstorm closed three major airports on the East Coast earlier this week, forcing the cancellation of 7,000 flights.
Singley said the delay at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was affecting all flights headed there.
"We thought we’d be able to use both runways," she said, "but only one is open."
San Francisco passengers were not the only ones to spend hours in an airplane not moving — three other flights reportedly spent up to 10 hours on the tarmac once they reached JFK airport.
The airlines — two operated by Cathay Airlines and the other British Airways — blamed a lack of gates for the delay.
Those passengers, though, were served snacks and beverages.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Wind delays planes at airport
High winds forced the delay of planes headed to San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday night as a powerful but brief storm hit the area, causing additional headaches for passengers.
The average delay for flights landing at SFO reached 2¼ hours by Tuesday evening. At the time, the area was experiencing 20 mph winds and rainy skies.
Flights trying to leave San Francisco were delayed more than an hour, according to airport officials.
According to the National Weather Service, rain and breezy conditions are expected in San Francisco through Wednesday evening. A high-wind advisory was issued for the entire Bay Area through this morning.
Since Christmas, thousands of travelers have been stranded at airports across the country due to a snowstorm on the East Coast.
More than 7,000 flights were canceled Sunday and Monday. According to Delta Airlines spokeswoman Chris Kelly Singley, it is taking airlines days to recover.
"There’s a lot of congestion," Singley said. "We’re all working to clean it up and get back to a full schedule."
— Andrea Koskey