LAX `extremely challenged'

Los Angeles International Airport is an "extremely challenged" facility that lacks the proper equipment and infrastructure to handle the type of massive computer meltdown that left more than 17,300 passengers stranded Saturday, according to the airport's chief executive.

The comments from Gina Marie Lindsay, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, came just days after a glitch in a single laptop computer shut down the U.S. Customs and Border Protection screening system at LAX on Saturday, followed by a power outage that knocked down the system for a second time in less than 24 hours.

"Under the best of circumstances, LAX is a facility that is extremely challenged," Lindsay told the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday.

"We lack the sufficient numbers and types of aircraft parking gates, we lack the terminal facilities and our concessions are undersized by about 50 percent," she said. "There is simply no margin, no margin for irregular operations of the nature and duration we experienced Saturday night."

A network interface card on a single desktop computer was blamed for shutting down the entire U.S. Customs screening system at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal around 2 p.m. Saturday, according to James Butts, head of law enforcement and protective services at the airport.

The network interface card allows computers to connect to a local area network that permits customs agents to run background checks and passport numbers of people entering the country.

The system compares passenger information with terrorist watch lists, law enforcement records and immigration files.

"It was a single network card in a single computer, which should not have brought down an entire system," Butts told the council.

"But it did," Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn replied.

A total of 17,386 passengers on 95 arriving international flights were affected by the outage. Some were held at the airport as late as 4:30 a.m. Sunday, according to Lindsay.

An unrelated power outage caused the screening system to shut down around 11:50 p.m. Sunday, leaving some 1,700 passengers stranded for about two hours.

The system's backup system failed to engage in both instances, according to customs officials.

Additionally, the outages occurred during the airport's peak operating month and on the busiest days of the week, Lindsay said.

The timing couldn't have been worse, she said, calling the situation a "perfect storm."

"We were told by Customs and Border Protection at the highest levels in Washington, D.C., that this has never happened with this kind of extensive downtime," Lindsay said.

U.S. customs officials told LAX executives that they plan to buy 190 additional laptop computers with backup screening software in about two months, followed by a complete overhaul of the system by the end of 2008.

"That's too long," Butts said. "The thing that strikes me about this event is that it was not because of an earthquake or some type of natural disaster. It was an event because of a policy decision."

Butts said a plan to send stranded passengers to empty airport hangars, local schools or for remote screening at the Port of Los Angeles was ruled out because airport officials had thought the problem would last no longer than three hours.

Additionally, the situation had the potential for making passengers feel like criminals, he said.

"These people, if they were taken off the airport property on American soil, they were not free to go anywhere," Butts said. "They were in our custody."

Passengers were well-fed and received water, despite reports that some did not have access to refreshments, according to airport officials. Diapers and baby formula were delivered to airplanes carrying infants.

"I bet service was not 100 percent on all the aircraft," Butts said. "But I do know that the airlines were doing the best they could to keep their planes stocked with snacks, water and to keep the restrooms serviced."

After a 40-minute discussion with airport officials, the council approved a resolution urging U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deploy more officers to LAX and the Port of Los Angeles.

art.marroquin@dailybreeze.com

(310) 543-6674


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