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Outage Disrupts L.A. Air Traffic

A power blackout at a key regional air traffic control center stops flights at major airports for about an hour.

July 19, 2006|Hector Becerra and Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writers

Commercial air traffic at Southern California's major airports came to a stop for more than an hour Tuesday after a power blackout at a regional radar facility.

The outage, which delayed hundreds of flights, occurred about 5:38 p.m. at a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control center in Palmdale. Authorities were checking reports that a vehicle hit a nearby power pole, possibly causing the facility to lose power.

It marks the second time in less than two years that troubles at the Palmdale center caused major a disruption in air service, although authorities said it's too early to know whether the two incidents point to a systemic problem.

Though a backup generator eventually kicked in, the mishap grounded virtually all flights in and out of Southern California's airports. Some flights were diverted to other airports, while passengers at Los Angeles International, John Wayne, Bob Hope and Ontario International airports spent the evening waiting for flights to be rescheduled.

The Palmdale facility handles flights above 13,000 feet, including commercial flights.

Authorities said the shutdown had a ripple effect on fights across the nation and that flight operations would probably not return to normal until this morning. At LAX alone, about 220 flights, mostly departures, and 25,000 passengers were affected, LAX spokesman Paul Haney said.

"All planes headed to LAX from anywhere else in the country were held on the ground until we resolved this issue," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

Pilots in the air lost radar contact because of the blackout and relied on radio communications with outlying airports to stay on course. Officials said that all airplanes have preset flight paths that they follow in the event of a radar malfunction and that there was no sign of problems.

"Safety is never compromised, but obviously it's caused an inconvenience," said Allen Kenitzer, a regional spokesman for the FAA.

But an air traffic controllers union representative said that for several minutes, safety was compromised.

"The airplanes were allowed to come into the system unguarded for eight minutes," said Garth Koleszar of the National Air Traffic Controller Assn. "My idea of safety is being 100% sure 100% of the time where an aircraft is. We did compromise safety here a bit."

The normal phalanx of airplane lights that could be seen streaming across the sky from nearby freeways toward LAX in the evening was reduced to a trickle.

"It's empty, very empty. That's the first thing we noticed when we got here," said Isabel Vaqueiro, as she waited outside the American Airlines terminal at LAX for her father, arriving from Fort Lauderdale.

"I'm just annoyed," said Kari Montgomery, an 18-year-old student from Scotland. "It's the first time I've been to America, let alone Los Angeles."

Shortly after 9 p.m., passengers began to flock to baggage claim areas as the airport hummed back to life.

The power outage grounded state Treasurer Phil Angelides, the Democratic nominee for governor, as he waited to depart on a Southwest flight from San Diego to Sacramento. After his plane sat on the tarmac for an hour, he returned to the terminal with the rest of the passengers -- and then started shaking hands and campaigning among the stranded.

Outside Orange County's John Wayne Airport, cars began backing up as passengers being dropped off learned that their flights had been delayed. Inside the terminal, meanwhile, other waiting passengers were glued to their cellphones trying to figure out what to do.

"We're fine with staying put," said Donna Berg, 48, a visitor from Janesville, Wis., on the last leg of a seven-day vacation with her 14-year-old daughter, Jamie. "This is a vacation we didn't want to end anyway. We'd be thrilled if we had to stay another night. We'd just call up our friends and have them pick us up."

Sally O'Neal, 32, of Salt Lake City did not share in the good cheer, as she was caught without a change of clothes for her one-day business trip.

"I wasn't a Boy Scout," she said. "And now I've learned my lesson: Be prepared, no matter what."

At Burbank's Bob Hope Airport, Jerri Krippner, 55, of Tujunga sounded a common refrain: "I don't know anything," she said as she waited for her husband and 3-year-old granddaughter to arrive from Dallas. "They should announce what's going on. They said one of the towers went out."

Last she heard, her loved ones were "stuck in Arizona."

At San Jose Airport, teacher Pat Villalobos waited none the wiser for her Southwest flight to Ontario.

"I heard an agent saying, 'If you want to go home, go home,' " Villalobos said. "Nothing has come up on the intercom. If I just came in right now, I wouldn't know anything was going on."

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