The New Flight Delay: Planes Can't Take Off Without ... Granola Bars?


New federal regulations for airlines have resulted in a new type of flight delay: Call it the granola bar wait.

It may be hard to believe, but my flight was delayed the other night because of a lack of rolled oats.

Blame it on Department of Transportation rules designed to avoid a repeat of weather-related incidents that have left passengers stranded on planes on the tarmac without food and water.

The new regulations, which went into effect on April 29, fine airlines once passengers are stranded on an airport tarmac for three hours. They also require emergency food (defined as a granola bar) along with water to be served within two hours of a landing delay.

Of course, the whole mess could have been averted if American Airlines' (AMR) caterer at San Francisco International Airport, LSG Sky Chefs (DLAKY), hadn't messed up the order for Flight 618 from San Francisco to Chicago on Friday night.

The 150 or so passengers on the Boeing 737, including me, were a little upset when flight attendants announced that the reason we couldn't leave the gate for an on-time 5:30 p.m. departure was that the caterer had messed up the food order. Until the caterer came back with the right provisions, we couldn't take off.

This announcement followed one in which we were told that Boston Market turkey carver sandwiches would be available for $10 on the four-hour flight. My fellow passengers said they didn't care about the overpriced sandwiches, they just wanted to get to Chicago. I was in total agreement. I informed the flight attendant that we rather get to Chicago hungry than get there later than planned.

"We have plenty of Boston Carver sandwiches,'' she explained. "We were shorted on granola bars and ice for the water."

The caterer took a while to come back: The delay would stretch to more than an hour before the plane finally took off.

The American Airlines pilot apologized for the delay before we landed, an hour late, explaining that he was just trying to comply with the new federal regulations.

But American Airlines Flight 618 wasn't being delayed by bad weather in San Francisco. It was a clear night.

In Chicago, however, it was raining. A flight attendant told me that there had been the possibility that flight would be diverted from its scheduled landing site at O'Hare Airport and end up at some other airport. Where we could end up stuck on the tarmac, she explained -- without the granola bars and the ice to make sure the water was cold!

No, I am not making this up.

American Airlines spokeswoman Missy Latham, whom I reached on the phone on Saturday, said the pilot was just being cautious by delaying the flight until the granola bars and ice arrived. She said he wanted to be able to comply with the new federal regulations, just in case the plane was stuck on the tarmac when it landed.

LSG Sky Chefs spokeswoman Beth Van Duyne said she was unable to determine immediately why Friday's Flight 618 didn't get sufficient granola bars and ice in the first place. However, she maintained it wasn't standard operating practice for the company to mess up a provisions order.

She did say that the new granola bar orders for airlines were requiring new procedures to put in place.

"We will continue to work with our partners to provide a seamless and comfortable experience for all involved while we work through the complexities of the new legislation,'' Van Duyne said in a statement that she emailed me.

Airlines had opposed these new federal regulations. They maintained that the 2007 JetBlue (JBLU) incident and others in which weather delays had caused passengers to be stuck on planes without food or water for as long as 11 hours, were rare. They also warned that as a consequence of the new law, weather issues might cause them to cancel flights outright instead of delaying them.

But no one talked about the granola bar delays. Let's hope LSG Sky Chefs gets the complexities of delivering granola bars to airplanes straightened out soon.