One of the busiest travel days of the year became a nightmare for thousands of Southern California airline passengers Wednesday due to a malfunctioning air traffic computer and a bomb scare that forced the emergency landing of a USAir jetliner at Los Angeles International Airport.
Although no bomb was found, three passengers suffered minor injuries as they scrambled to exit Flight 20, bound from Los Angeles to Indianapolis and Washington. Others aboard the 737 complained that officials took about 15 minutes to begin getting passengers off the plane after landing.
'We'd All Be Gone'
"If there had been a bomb, we'd all be gone," said passenger Herb Wright, 40, of Los Angeles, the producer of the new "Star Trek" television series.
Federal officials said the day began badly when a software problem surfaced in the massive IBM computer in Palmdale that controls high-altitude air traffic for much of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
The glitch caused the system to fail for 4 1/2 hours, beginning shortly after 5 a.m., just as airlines were preparing for the morning crush of pre-Thanksgiving travelers.
The failure forced air traffic to be shifted to a slower backup computer, delaying an estimated 54 flights at Los Angeles International and an additional 91 flights at other airports in Southern California, said Elly Brekke, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Delays varied from 30 to 40 minutes in Los Angeles to an hour or more at airports in San Francisco and San Diego, airport officials said.
"When the (main) computer goes down, the controller does not have all the flight data in front of him" to guide planes through high-altitude flight corridors, Brekke said. Although the situation does not pose an added risk to airline safety, she said, it forces controllers to carry printed information by hand, limiting the volume of traffic they can handle.
Officials ordered all 7:30 a.m. flights from Los Angeles International, Burbank and Ontario airports delayed for half an hour to relieve the traffic burden, Brekke said. Technicians at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center were able to correct the main computer by 9:30 a.m., she said.
By that time, flights out of Los Angeles International were reported on time, although other airports continued to report some delays on into the afternoon.
"We worked very hard to get that airport back to normal operations as quickly as possible," Brekke said of Los Angeles International. "That time of day is a heavy departure time."
The computer center in Palmdale--one of 20 such FAA regional facilities in the United States--is responsible for tracking planes once they reach their assigned flight altitudes, more than three miles above ground, Brekke said. The Los Angeles region is one of the nation's busiest, handling an average of 5,800 flights a day with a sophisticated radar system and its 18-year-old IBM computer.
Not a Factor
The computer has ample capacity to handle busy holiday flight schedules, which were not considered a factor in Wednesday's malfunction, Brekke said.
Los Angeles International spokesmen said they expected the airport to handle 180,000 passengers Wednesday, 40% more than on a normal weekday. Although the number of passengers delayed by the computer malfunction was unknown, Los Angeles International and San Diego's Lindbergh Field--with 58 delayed flights--were the hardest hit by the computer breakdown, according to FAA officials.
Some of the delays at San Diego's jammed airport lasted two hours, airport supervisor Fred Davis said.
Lindbergh Field tower supervisor J.P. Roger differed with FAA reports, estimating that 90 departures were delayed. By midafternoon, the airport was still running behind, he said.
"It's better than it was, but we're still catching up," Roger said.
Ron Wilson, a spokesman at San Francisco International Airport, said delays there were an hour in the early morning and 20 minutes around noon. The effect of the computer failure, he said, was similar to that of bad weather.
"It has not been a horrendous situation," he said.
The USAir flight, carrying a capacity load of 138 passengers, departed Los Angeles about noon, banked over the ocean and returned almost immediately, airline officials said. It was met by more than a dozen fire trucks and police units, according to passengers.
Two elderly women and an elderly man suffered minor injuries, including a sprained wrist and sprained ankle, as panicked passengers jumped 10 feet from the plane's wings and scrambled down emergency chutes.
Alarm swept through the plane after emergency chutes dropped and police and fire vehicles began arriving with flashing lights and sirens, but passengers said they were unaware of the bomb threat until after leaving the plane. Pilots told them of the scare as they were on buses returning to the terminal.