In response to a U.S. Customs computer system outage that left thousands of passengers waiting for hours on airplanes or in the terminal Customs area at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), city officials have called for a report on actions being taken to prevent similar delays in the future.
The U.S. Customs computer malfunction at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX started at about 2 p.m. Saturday, August 11th, a peak summer travel day, and lasted for about ten hours. The incident affected nearly 17,400 passengers on 73 flights, U.S. Customs officials said.
As the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency worked to correct the computer glitch, passengers expressed their frustrations with having to wait for hours on planes or in the terminal area after already traveling on international flights and receiving little information as to the circumstances.
The outage, which was blamed on hardware failure, occurred in a customs screening system that allows officers to check passenger background information and passport numbers, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Fleming. The system compares the information to terrorist watch lists, as well as immigration and law enforcement records, he said.
“It’s really a crucial tool,” Fleming said of the system.
The system has experienced smaller outages in the past but officials called the magnitude of the outage August 11th unprecedented.
Fleming said the type of outage was “extremely unusual” and hard to diagnose. The system’s backup was also slow to respond because of an “extraordinary ripple effect” that was caused when the outage knocked out the local processing system at LAX, as well as part of the national network, Fleming said.
“It was an extraordinary circumstance, and for the 17,000 folks who got caught up in it, we deeply regret it,” he said.
A second glitch in the system that was unrelated to the first occurred close to midnight Sunday, August 12th, he said. The outage, which was also blamed on hardware failure, was fixed about two hours later and affected nearly 1,700 passengers, he said.
Reacting to the thousands of passengers who were forced to wait for hours while the first glitch was corrected August 11th, city officials are calling on Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, to prepare a report on the incident.
“I am outraged that LAX suffered delays of this magnitude and that thousands of passengers were forced to endure very inconvenient circumstances without appropriate communication,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the LAX area.
“This is totally unacceptable and cannot happen again. I expect to receive a thorough and comprehensive report on contingency plans and best practices to be used moving forward.”
Rosendahl and City Councilwoman Janice Hahn introduced a motion Tuesday, August 14th, requesting Los Angeles World Airports to report on efforts under way by U.S. Customs to ensure that the malfunction problem is permanently corrected.
The motion also requests the airport department to report on actions being taken to ensure that passengers receive “proper communication and hospitality” during unforeseen incidents.
The motion notes that while the computer outage was a U.S. Customs responsibility, it is the reputation of LAX that “got the hit” from passengers as a result of the incident.
Los Angeles World Airports representatives were scheduled to address the report at the City Council meeting Wednesday, August 15th.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the situation experienced by the arriving international passengers “both troubling and unacceptable.”
The mayor said he has also requested an investigation and report of the incident, which should include changes to procedures to improve the processing of passengers in the event of another system failure.
“As always, the safety, security and welfare of all passengers is our number one priority,” Villaraigosa said.
In a letter to Rosendahl, Congresswoman Jane Harman expressed support for a report on the computer malfunction, calling the incident “completely unacceptable.”
When airport officials were informed of the passengers waiting on planes, they requested authorization to continue providing services to passengers on board, including food and beverages, airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said.
Some planes waiting for hours needed to be refueled to keep the air conditioning running and airport maintenance crews continued to service lavatories.
Pilots and international terminal greeters informed passengers of the delay in the customs screening area but many passengers and visitors waiting for pickup were frustrated with not being able to know how long the delay would last, Castles said.
“We had no reports of unruly passengers during this entire time period and that is really commendable to the passengers,” Castles said.
Fleming of Customs and Border Protection said that the agency could not alter its inspection process, such as take passenger information manually, during the incident, because that could jeopardize security.
“We can not and will not compromise the security of our borders,” he said.
The agency has formed a working group to study the computer system malfunction and it is committed to working with city and airport officials to address the problem, as well as determine ways to prevent future incidents, Fleming said.
“This is a top priority,” he said.