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LAX Computer Glitch Strands 20,000 for 14 Hours

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When the port director for customs at LAX calls it bad, and he's been around since the '70s you know it's bad. "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," Peter Gordon told the LA Times about the computer meltdown that stranded 20,000 travelers yesterday and early this morning for 14 hours.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection 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 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. Processing passengers through customs took several hours after that.

At 3:50 a.m., customs cleared the last seven people -- one passenger in a wheelchair and six crew members -- all from the last flight to arrive early today during the backlog: Mexicana Airlines Flight 922 from Guadalajara, Mexico.

Because of the snafu, airport parking lots were jammed until 3am, vending machines were barren, and because of Murphy's Law there was a water shortage in the Tom Bradley Terminal due to building renovations which found children and elderly passengers laying on the ground suffering from dehydration.
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Three industrial fans provided all of the air conditioning, but their range was spotty at best.

At 10pm there were over 8,000 people waiting in planes either on the tarmac or at the gates.

The cause of the delays was due to a switch in the computer network with valuable information about the criminal backgrounds of the air travelers coming in and out of LAX.

A major switch in the system, which contains names of arriving passengers and law enforcement data about them, including arrest warrants, had failed and had to be replaced, said Mike Fleming, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman. "That system allows our officers to make decisions on who we can allow to enter the United States," Fleming said. "You just don't know by looking at them."

The computers were fully restored at 11:45 p.m., and the last of backlogged passengers were processed by early Sunday, Fleming said. - AP

The LAT also reported that "as late as 10:20 p.m., passengers arriving on an Eva Air flight from Mumbai were told they would probably have to stay on the tarmac for up to five hours, according to a passenger who e-mailed The Times from the plane."

top photo by AP/ Dan Steinberg, bottom photo of LAX passengers last year, who didn't know how good they were having it, by Silly Jilly via flickr