Customs blamed for clog at LAX

Times Staff Writers

Aviation officials criticized U.S. Customs on Monday for being unprepared and taking too long to fix the weekend computer failure at LAX that left more than 17,000 international passengers stranded for hours in airplanes.

Accustomed to frequent, short-lived outages, customs officials said they mistakenly believed their computers would be up and running within an hour Saturday.

Then they made another mistake, aviation officials said. They misdiagnosed the problem, deciding it involved high-speed communications lines that link to the national law enforcement databases used to assess possible security threats posed by arriving passengers.


They called in the service provider, Sprint Nextel Corp.

But a technician did not arrive for four hours, aviation officials said, and took three hours to determine that the transmission lines were not the problem.

By then, the passenger processing backlog had spiraled out of control, with thousands trapped in airplanes on the ground, even as more planes were arriving.

“We’re concerned about the slow response by customs,” said Steve Lott, chief spokesman in North America for the International Air Transport Assn. Although “we understand that computer systems are not perfect, the frustration is why customs had no contingency plan.”

Michael Fleming, spokesman in Los Angeles for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, said agency officials worked as quickly as possible.

“We did everything we could,” he said. “We certainly weren’t expecting something of this magnitude. In the past, if we had a little glitch,” the computers “came up right away.”

That’s what happened more than 24 hours later, when customs computers crashed again. They were down for about 80 minutes late Sunday night and early Monday for what officials said were problems unrelated to Saturday’s issues. They declined to provide details.

Fleming said he did not know about the delay in Sprint arriving Saturday. “I know we contacted them.”

He said Saturday’s breakdown was the result of a hardware malfunction that prevented access to the agency’s local network. It was finally pinpointed and fixed by agency employees and another computer contractor nine hours after the system crashed.

Kathleen Dunleavy, a Sprint spokeswoman, said customs officials called the company about 1:30 p.m., reporting that two routers were down. Within half an hour, she said, technicians were testing the routers from a remote location but concluded they were operating correctly. About 4:30 p.m., as customs reported continuing problems, a technician was dispatched. He arrived about 6 p.m. and by about 8 had concluded the problem was not with the transmission lines but with the customs agency’s local area network. Sprint’s time frame of events and that of aviation officials differs slightly.

As planes began to stack up on the tarmac Saturday afternoon and into the evening, airline and airport officials pressed customs to relax its inspection standards and process passengers based on information the passengers themselves provided.

But customs officials declined. “We can’t risk our security for even one traveler,” Fleming said. “What if one was a terrorist?”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles International Airport officials discussed defying the federal government and storming aircraft to rescue passengers if frustration led to violence aboard the idling jets.

“We would have gone out and rescued those folks. . . and dealt with the federal fine later,” said Paul Haney, deputy executive director for airports and security for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates LAX.

They settled instead for providing food, drink and enough fuel to keep air-conditioning systems running, with customs’ blessing.

Haney said customs notified airport officials of the problem about half an hour after it started.

An hour later, when the system wasn’t back up, airport officials began setting up a crisis center, involving officials from the Los Angeles Fire Department, Police Department, airport police, airlines and the Los Angeles Unified School District, as they considered options such as using schools to temporarily house incoming passengers who were technically not allowed to set foot on United States soil.

They also discussed using airport hangars and bringing in portable toilets, diverting airplanes to Ontario and Las Vegas airports, and sending stranded passengers to the Port of Los Angeles for processing.

By 5 p.m., Haney said, officials decided passengers would be safer and more comfortable staying on the airplanes “as long as we could ensure airplanes had power and ground service companies and caterers could access the planes.”

Nearly 40 ambulances were on standby.

By 5:30 or 6 p.m., said James Butts, deputy executive director for the airport agency’s law enforcement and protection services, a customs official told him that a Sprint technician had finally arrived.

Frank Clark, executive director of LAXTECH Corp., business agent for the 43 international airlines that serve LAX, said customs officials were “clearly displeased with that lack of timely response.”

Butts said that by 9:30 p.m., a customs official told him they realized the problem did not involve Sprint. The official told him that it was believed to have been caused by a “defective router.”

By then, Haney said, airport officials had asked the Federal Aviation Administration to divert some incoming flights, but only two were diverted. “I guess at the end of the day there’s pilot discretion,” Haney said.

Despite the glitches, most pilots wanted to land at LAX.

As the day dragged on, customs officials began deploying their backup system, which was slower and involved setting up a limited number of laptops for inspectors to use.

Officials said they were working on expanding the backup system.

Viraf Pudumjee, 46, of Palos Verdes, was flying back from Mumbai and landed Saturday about 2:30 p.m., only to clear immigration about 9:30 p.m.

“Computer problems are going to happen, but the problem was the backup system was nonexistent or inadequate,” Pudumjee said.

The computer system was up and running again at 11:45 p.m. The passenger backlog was cleared hours later.