Fliers fume at LAX chaos

Times Staff Writers

A U.S. Customs computer outage that stranded more than 17,000 passengers at LAX was blamed Sunday on faulty hardware and an insufficient backup system that left frustrated travelers sitting on planes or standing in long lines.

Saturday night’s delays in screening people arriving on international flights were unprecedented, said Kevin Weeks, director of Los Angeles field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

The computer malfunction, which began at 2 p.m. Saturday and lasted about 10 hours, came on a peak summer travel day, when nearly 25,000 international passengers arrived at the airport.

The customs agency reported Sunday that 17,398 passengers on 73 flights were affected by Saturday’s outage.


The entire system was up and running just before midnight. But it took four hours early Sunday for customs officers to clear a long backlog of passengers.

“Our system’s up and we’re back to normal,” Michael Fleming, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection agency in Los Angeles, said Sunday morning.

Nevertheless, passengers were still dealing with the aftermath. Many were still angry and frustrated about their disrupted vacations and other trips because they had missed connecting flights.

“This is the worst delay I’ve ever encountered, and I travel a lot,” said Rosita Iglesias, 47, of Tujunga, who was heading to Cancun, Mexico.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued a statement Sunday saying he had contacted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to request a “thorough investigation and incident report, which should include changes to procedures and protocols to ensure faster and more convenient processing of passengers” in case of another such incident. He called Saturday’s disruption “both troubling and unacceptable.”

The outage forced some planes to sit on the tarmac for so long Saturday night that workers had to refuel them to keep their power units and air conditioners running. Maintenance trucks drove around the airport, with workers hooking up tubes to aircraft to service airplane lavatories.

“This is probably one of the worst days we’ve had. I’ve been with the agency for 30 years, and I’ve never seen the system go down and stay down for as long as it did,” said Peter Gordon, acting port director for the customs agency.

The computer system, which serves five LAX terminals that handle incoming international flights, is considered essential to national security. It allows officers to check biographical information and passport numbers of people entering the country and compare them to terrorist watch lists, immigration records and law enforcement reports. Some people are then subject to more in-depth, secondary searches.

“We’re living in a post-9/11 environment, and obviously we have to be mindful of our security mission,” Weeks added. “We aren’t willing to take on that risk by trying to process passengers manually, as we may have done 10 years ago.”

A backup system was in place, but it was accessible only to customs officers in some of the lanes where passengers were being processed, creating huge bottlenecks.

Fleming said the problem was that “a computer switch failed, which knocked down our entire communications system. We had to diagnose and locate the problem and replace the switch.” He could not provide further details about what went wrong.

Malfunctions with the electronic system have cropped up periodically, some locally and some nationally. But they all were fixed quickly, usually within an hour, Weeks said. Customs officials expected to have an expanded backup system at LAX in the next couple of months.

“We’re making plans to expand our capabilities, specifically with our backup system, in the unlikely event we have this type of event again,” Weeks said.

He said he did not know how old the computer system was, but that it was continuously updated with new technology.

At the Mexicana Airlines ticket terminal Sunday morning, confusion reigned as more than a dozen passengers waited in line to make new flight connections. Several of them complained that the airlines had failed to keep them informed about developments and had misplaced their bags. A Mexicana Airlines spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.

For Iglesias, the disruptions delayed her family vacation to Cancun. She had gotten up at 3 a.m. to see if her 7 a.m. flight to Mexico City was on time. After being told it was, she drove to the airport with her 74-year-old mother and her two children, ages 11 and 13. But about 10 minutes before the plane was scheduled to depart, they were told the flight was delayed five hours because the pilot had been caught up in Saturday night’s delays and didn’t get the minimum amount of sleep required between flights.

Then, about 11 a.m., an airline agent suddenly announced to the crowd that the Mexico City flight would be momentarily departing and advised passengers to rush to the gate to board. But rather than fly to Mexico City and miss her connection to Cancun, Iglesias and her family decided to stay at LAX.

Some passengers took the delays in stride.

David Davies, a 36-year-old property manager from New Zealand who spent three months surfing in Mexico and Central America, was supposed to be at work Sunday but had been stuck at LAX since 8 p.m. Saturday. He and other passengers were kept in the plane for five hours, he said, and he missed his 9 p.m. connection to Auckland. By Sunday morning, he was broke, hungry and unsure when he would get back home. Worse, he said, his surfboard had been damaged during baggage handling.

“The real frustrating thing is I still don’t know whether I have a flight,” he said. But Davies said he would get over it. “As soon as I go home, I’ll get a wave and it’ll be fine,” he said.

At other ticket counters, business appeared normal Sunday.

Tom Winfrey, a spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates Los Angeles International Airport, said only five out of 165 outbound international flights were delayed Sunday. The flights were initially delayed leaving LAX, which caused them to arrive late at their foreign destination, which then triggered a late trip back to LAX on Sunday.

“We knew today would be a catch-up day,” said Nancy Castles, an airport spokeswoman.

Among 19 flights listed on the departure board Sunday morning, only two were posted as delayed. The rest were on time or showing new times 15 to 20 minutes late, although the airlines said the delays were unrelated to the computer glitch.

Jackie Garcia, a Cathay Pacific flight control agent, said about 670 of the airline’s passengers arriving at LAX on two flights Saturday night were affected by the computer problems. They were stuck on runways for six hours, while outbound travelers to Hong Kong faced a three-hour delay, finally taking off early Sunday. “It was a mess,” she said. “People were hungry or sleeping on the floor.”

Some visitors from overseas said they were astonished by the glitch at one of the nation’s most prominent airports.

“This is a great country -- and this happens?” said Lee Hong, 23, as he waited outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at 3:30 a.m. Sunday for a friend from Long Beach to make a second trip to LAX to fetch him. Hong’s flight from Singapore landed at 8:30 p.m., but he could not disembark until morning. This would not happen in Singapore, Hong said. “No. No way. We have a great airport.”

Bleary-eyed, rumpled passengers described how they had sat in cramped airplane seats, joints stiff from long overseas flights, waiting for their pilots to announce again that there was no news. When passengers emerged from planes, they found most restaurants in the Bradley terminal were closed or running low on food. The few restaurants still open had long lines of people waiting.

The crew of one Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico that spent seven hours on the ground was forced to ration food, giving it to the elderly, children and people with health problems, said Robert Le Cam, 43, one of three returning Huntington Beach surfers loading surfboards onto a truck outside the Bradley terminal about 2 a.m.

A Mexicana Airlines flight from Guadalajara ran out of water, soda and ice, said Luis Castaneta, 35, of San Dimas, returning from a vacation with 14 relatives. Many of the travelers said they were frustrated and angry at what they called a lack of information.

“Can’t they simply tell us which flights are delayed? I have a 13-year-old daughter coming in, unescorted,” said film producer John Dellaverson as he stood waiting for a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, Germany, that was six hours late.

Airport parking lots were also jammed. At 3 a.m. Sunday, some lots were still gridlocked.

The delays rivaled the worst incidents of last winter, when severe weather left thousands of passengers languishing for up to nine hours on American Airlines and JetBlue Airways planes.

Paul Gysels, 60, of San Francisco, was loading up on beef jerky and chocolate bars at a newsstand. He had just spent five hours on the tarmac after arriving from La Paz, Mexico.

After he got off the flight, his troubles continued. He had missed the night’s last flight to San Francisco. Nevertheless, he was determined to get home as soon as possible. “Nobody’s going to make it out of L.A. before me,” he said.



Times staff writers Marla Cone and Ari B. Bloomekatz contributed to this report.