Computer glitches prevented Homeland Security officials from checking passengers traveling into the U.S. against terrorist and criminal watch lists, leaving nearly 19,000 passengers at Los Angeles International Airport over the weekend on the tarmac unable to clear customs.
“This was a major, unprecedented computer failure,” said Mike Fleming, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Los Angeles.
It took 10 hours to diagnose and fix the larger of the two computer-electronic problems, which occurred at 2 p.m. Saturday. Mr. Fleming said 73 international flights with more than 17,000 aboard were affected.
Just before midnight Sunday, a separate computer switch in another building failed for nearly two hours and caused further flight delays, affecting about 1,700 more passengers. Mr. Fleming said the two outages were not related.
Passengers affected by the earlier glitch could not be let into the airport normally and were instead bused into the customs hall for processing. The last passenger cleared customs by 4 a.m., said Tom Winfrey, spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX and other area airports.
“People were waiting on the aircraft, but they had water, food and power and lav services; it’s not like they were stuck in a snowstorm or bad weather,” Mr. Winfrey said.
Mr. Fleming said officials allowed “as many passengers into the customs hall as we could tolerate without becoming a safety and health issue.”
“We deeply regret the hardships and inconvenience of the travelers and the airlines involved,” Mr. Fleming said. “It was an unfortunate and unprecedented incident that we are going to go back and look at very hard and work closely with our city partners and try and make sure this kind of problem does not happen again.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to investigate the computer glitch and resulting delays, which he called “troubling and unacceptable.”
Mr. Villaraigosa also requested changes to procedures and protocols “to ensure faster and more convenient processing of passengers in the event of future systems failures.”
“I have also requested an increase in home security staff at both LAX and LA/Ontario International Airport, which would allow for a more flexible response should future problems arise at the nation’s second largest international destination,” Mr. Villaraigosa said.
The computer database holds national security information for screeners to prevent terrorists from entering the country or wanted criminals from leaving the U.S.
“This is very crucial to the nation’s security,” Mr. Fleming said. “It only takes one bad guy to significantly hurt our country.”