Computer Glitch Strands 20,000 at L.A. Airport

APSalvador Guerrero waiting for his wife to exit customs at Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday afternoon.
LOS ANGELES -- More than 20,000 international passengers were stranded for hours at Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday, waiting on airplanes and in packed customs halls while a malfunctioning computer system prevented U.S. officials from processing the travelers' entry into the country.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection computer system went down around 2 p.m., forcing some planes to sit on the tarmac for so long that workers had to refuel them to keep their power units and air conditioning systems running. Maintenance workers ran trucks around the airport hooking up tubes to service lavatories.

Just after midnight Saturday, Tom Winfrey, a spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports, said the computer system was up and running. And at 2:10 a.m., customs spokesman Michael Fleming said only one flight remained to be processed.

"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 customs.

The system maintains a list of people who should be subject to secondary searches upon entering the country, Fleming said.

"The vast majority of people" do not pose a security threat, "but it only takes one," he said. "Obviously a lot of innocent folks have been detained, and it is regrettable."

Some of 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 planes.

Sals Farsi, 39, his wife and three children spent seven hours waiting to get off a flight from Cabo San Lucas late Saturday night. They said they received formula for their 6-month-old when the captain radioed the terminal for it. "This was crazy," he said.

When passengers emerged from planes tired and bleary eyed, they found most restaurants in the Bradley terminal closed or running low on food. The few restaurants still open had long lines of 30 to 40 people.

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

Even when he got off the flight, his troubles continued. He learned he had missed the last flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. "Nobody's going to make it out of L.A. before me."

On a British Airways flight from London that had been stuck at its gate for more than three hours, passengers "actually are being very patient," said Ventura resident Mel Swope, who was returning with his wife, Judie, from their second home in Alet les Bains, France. Speaking from the plane, Swope added: "They're talking on cell phones to family and friends. But the natives are getting restless. People are missing connections."

Coffee, soft drinks and water helped mollify passengers aboard an Alaska Airlines flight from La Paz, Mexico.

"People are pretty positive about it-- they realize these things happen," said Kelly Henderson, a high school math teacher from Lawndale who had been stuck on the tarmac for several hours. "Everyone's been behaving well."

But in the inspection area inside the Bradley terminal, an estimated 1,000 passengers quickly emptied the vending machines and no water was available for at least four hours, an airport employee said. By the time water arrived, children and elderly passengers were lying on the floor showing signs of dehydration. Water fountains were not accessible due to renovations in the terminal, and the only air conditioning was provided by three industrial fans with limited range, he said.

Three people were transported to local hospitals after they fell ill from waiting so long in the terminals, the Los Angeles City Fire Department said.

The system serves five airport terminals that handle incoming international flights, said Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports. Airport and customs officials offered conflicting numbers of how many people were affected by the computer malfunction. Winfrey, of the airport, said about 11,000 people were directly affected; customs officials put that number at 20,000.

By 10 p.m., customs officials estimated that 8,100 people were waiting on planes. Computers were functioning normally at three smaller terminals, but at Bradley, a backup system was running well below normal capacity.

Customs officials were processing about 1,500 incoming passengers an hour; normally they process 2,800.

By late evening, officials moved some passengers to domestic terminals while they waited to be processed through customs.

Airlines send customs a list of all the passengers bound for the United States on international flights, and the federal agency combs through those lists to see whether any travelers have been flagged by the Department of Homeland Security for special screening. With the computers down, customs cannot access that list, Fleming said.