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Wildfire Disrupts Nation's Air Travel

FAA halts hundreds of flights to Southern California after closure of key control center.

October 27, 2003|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

Air traffic across the nation was disrupted Sunday when a wildfire forced the closure of a major air traffic control center near San Diego, halting hundreds of flights into the major airfields in Southern California, including Los Angeles International Airport.

Delays of up to 8 1/2 hours on flights to Los Angeles were reported Sunday morning, with an average delay of almost six hours. Officials said the delays could continue into this morning, and travelers were advised to check with airlines before heading to the airport.

"It's a big mess," said Alex Tumanov, president of Axis, a limousine service based at LAX. "No one's coming in, and the people waiting to leave don't know what to do."

Delays were reported Sunday at LAX, Burbank Airport, Ontario International Airport, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Long Beach Municipal Airport and Lindbergh Field in San Diego.

LAX spokesman Paul Haney said that, by 8:30 p.m., about 200 of the airport's scheduled 1,700 Sunday landings and departures had been canceled. Southwest Airlines suspended flights into the area on Sunday afternoon.

At Sacramento International Airport, hundreds decided instead to book rental cars, and the lines at those counters were steady all day long, employees said.

"It's been horrendous," said Meredith Dineen of Studio City, whose 5 p.m. Southwest flight to Burbank was canceled. She rented a minivan for the solo ride home, setting out at 8 p.m.

The day's delays began after approaching flames prompted the closure of the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control center at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station at about 9 a.m. The center's main job, routing commercial air traffic to and from Southern California's principal airports, was shifted to the Federal Aviation Administration's regional control center in Palmdale. Haney said some controllers from the San Diego center reported to LAX.

The regional center is designed to handle high-altitude flights, with limited radar coverage at lower levels, said Paul Turk, a spokesman for the FAA in Washington.

"They had to reduce the rate at which the airports in Southern California could accept planes," Turk said. "For instance, at LAX, they could only take about 40 an hour, while the normal rate is 84."

To avoid long lines of planes waiting to land, the FAA ordered a "ground stop" at airports throughout the country for all flights bound for Southern California. "Anything on the ground didn't leave the ground," Turk said. "Only the planes in the air could keep coming."

By noon, as the backlog eased, the FAA changed the ground stop to a ground delay, holding planes at the gate for several hours. Average delays had dropped to about 15 minutes by late Sunday night.

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