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Thousands of Flights Delayed or Canceled by Computer Failure

Travel: FAA software glitch in Palmdale strands passengers at airports in the Southland and other parts of the Southwest. Problem is corrected later in the day.

October 20, 2000|EDWARD J. BOYER and JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Air traffic control computer failures grounded or delayed hundreds of flights into and out of Los Angeles and Orange counties and other parts of the Southwest Thursday, jamming airport terminals with thousands of frustrated travelers.

At Burbank Airport, a Southwest Airlines representative warned over the loudspeaker: "It is possible that any one of you won't get to your final destination today."

Then she added, jokingly, "Don't shoot the messenger."

A Southwest spokeswoman said 70 Southern California flights were canceled.

"Most are running three or four hours late, if they are getting out at all," spokeswoman Sonja O'Neill said.

Arrival and departure monitors in LAX's always-busy Terminal 1 flashed "delayed" or "closed" after nearly every flight.

All 2,200 flights into and out of the airport "were delayed in some form or another," said spokeswoman Diana Sanchez, with the length of the delays varying.

The ripple effect spread across the nation, because planes leaving late from LAX arrived late at other airports, causing further delays.

Aviation experts compared the impact with that of a major storm. Storms in the Midwest can be worse, completely shutting down major hubs such as Chicago's O'Hare Airport for hours.

During Thursday's delay in Los Angeles, weight-loss guru Richard Simmons tried to lighten the mood at one LAX gate with banter and dancing after he arrived from Philadelphia on a flight that he said had been rerouted and then forced to fly in a holding pattern for 45 minutes before landing.

"Honey, I could have been in Paris eating cold oysters by now," he said.

The FAA's computer problems developed after technicians loaded new software into equipment at the Federal Aviation Administration's Los Angeles Center in Palmdale at midnight, said FAA spokesman Jerry Snyder.

At 6:50 a.m., that software failed for 1 hour and 40 minutes. The system failed again at 9 a.m. for 2 hours and 15 minutes, he said.

The new software had been installed in 17 other FAA centers with no problems, Snyder said.

"At no time was there ever a question of passenger safety, only a question of passenger delay," he said.

Controllers immediately went to backup systems, Snyder said, "and we never lost radar contact or a visual of any flight."

The computer failures forced the FAA to put a "ground stoppage" across dozens of states on planes scheduled to fly to the southern half of California, the southern third of Nevada, the western third of Arizona and "a little smidgen of southwest Utah," Snyder said.

Eliot Brenner, an FAA spokesman in Washington, said the delays were primarily west of the Mississippi, involving traffic headed to the West Coast.

"The system is back up," he said Thursday afternoon, "and should catch up in a few more hours."

Fifteen departing flights were delayed Thursday morning at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, said spokeswoman Nghia Nguyen. The only flights affected were those heading north through Los Angeles International Airport airspace, she said.

At San Diego's Lindbergh Field, dozens of flights were delayed, leading to long lines at ticket counters and frayed nerves among travelers.

"We were not overwhelmed," said airport spokeswoman Diana Lucero, "but it was very hectic."

A dozen planes were loaded and ready for takeoff in San Diego when the FAA issued the second no-fly order. The planes returned to the gate and their passengers disembarked.

At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said 40 flights were held during the computer trouble. She said the airport struggled until midafternoon to return to "some normalcy."

"We have lots and lots of delays and cancellations on the board," she said. "Even though the radar has been restored, we're feeling the domino effect of the impact on the entire system. It will take us some hours to catch up."

In Burbank, Gail Petchenick of West Hills had visions of large-denomination bills dancing in her head as she waited impatiently to get to Las Vegas.

"I could be winning money right now," she said. "This is so frustrating."

Larry Green was so frustrated after two LAX flights were canceled that he decided on another option.

"I figured I'd get smart and drive to Burbank," he said, "and now here I am."

But Green wasn't angry about the delays.

"The good news," he said, "is you have people who think about your safety."

*

Times staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego, Tom Gorman in Las Vegas, Jeff Gottlieb in Orange County and Noaki Schwartz in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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