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System Failure Snarls Air Traffic in the Southland

A breakdown at an FAA control center diverts hundreds of flights headed to Southern California and halts takeoffs at area airports.

September 15, 2004|Eric Malnic and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

As many as 800 commercial airline flights bound for Southern California were diverted and all takeoffs from the Southland's major airports were halted after radio and radar equipment failed for 3 1/2 hours at a major air traffic control center in the Mojave Desert on Tuesday.

The diverted flights landed at airports in Northern California and other states, officials said, creating a massive air traffic snarl that was expected to last into today. Planes scheduled to take off for Southern California were held on the ground at airports nationwide.

A computer glitch at 4:40 p.m. apparently caused the radio and radar failures at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, which handles cruise-altitude air traffic across Southern California and most of Arizona and Nevada, an area of about 178,000 square miles.

Without warning, radios went dead and radar screens went blank. An official with the air traffic controllers union, Hamid Ghaffari, said a seldom-used backup system came up "for a couple of minutes, and then it failed too."

Exactly what went wrong was not immediately determined. Throughout the Southland, neighborhoods in flight paths soon experienced unusual silence.

About 8:15 p.m., the radar and radios came back in service. But the FAA said it would be hours before all the delayed and diverted flights were back in the air and air traffic was back to normal.

The system breakdown left thousands of passengers stranded, some circling in planes for an hour or more before landing at airports far from their destinations, others waiting on the ground for planes that didn't take off as scheduled.

Scores of passengers at LAX's Terminal One groaned when someone announced over a loudspeaker that all flights in and out of the airport had been canceled for the night.

At an America West ticket counter, a line of more than 100 passengers snaked across the floor. At the front of the line a man waved his hands and asked, "Everything?" to a harried ticket agent.

At the airport in El Paso, 24-year-old Phillip Nemes said he was trying to look on the bright side. Nemes had left Atlanta in the morning for Fort Lauderdale. From Fort Lauderdale he took an American Airlines flight destined for LAX. Instead, the aircraft circled Albuquerque before being sent back to Texas.

Nemes, a cook who lives in Mammoth Lakes, said, "I have another six hours on the road when I get to LAX -- if I get to LAX this evening, which isn't looking very likely."

The FAA said the system failure never posed a serious safety hazard. Many of the planes still appeared on radar systems at other air traffic control facilities, and pilots, following established procedures, switched radio frequencies and began talking to controllers at other facilities.

But Ghaffari, president of the controllers union chapter at the regional center, said the failures complicated the job of air traffic control exponentially.

"When you have a failure of this magnitude, you are bound to have a chaotic situation, because you have no ability to talk to aircraft under your control," Ghaffari said. "You have to use an actual phone and call another facility outside of ours and have them switched over to other air traffic facilities."

Ghaffari said that until Tuesday, the touch-screen Voice Switching and Communications System that failed had been very reliable. "It's been one of the great assets of the FAA," he said. "Up until today."

The breakdown cut off radio and radar communications with as many as 800 planes bound for Los Angeles International, Ontario, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Long Beach, and Palm Springs airports and Lindbergh Field in San Diego.

A few of the planes were close enough to the airports to contact the Southern California Terminal Radar Control facility in San Diego. It was functioning normally, and those planes landed as scheduled.

But most planes were too far out to use the San Diego facility. They had to change routes, contact other control towers farther north and east and land at alternate airports, including San Jose, San Francisco, Albuquerque and Wichita, Kan.

By early evening, three diverted flights had landed at San Francisco International Airport. They included a Virgin Atlantic flight from London that had been headed for LAX and a Northwest Airlines flight from Alaska to LAX that was running low on fuel.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said in Dallas that some of the airline's flights were diverted to Phoenix and Albuquerque. The equipment failure, she said, had the same effect as a major storm.

"Nothing can get in or out."

United Airlines spokesman Stephan Roth in Los Angeles said flights headed for LAX were forced to land as far east as Wichita and Phoenix. The longer the outage continued, he said, the worse the disruption. "It keeps growing," he said.

For passengers traveling to and from the Los Angeles region Tuesday afternoon, the day proved arduous.

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