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Turbulence at LAX

Systems failures at the airport are symptoms of a dangerous pattern of neglect.

August 16, 2007

The timing of last week's computer crash at Los Angeles International Airport could hardly have been worse: a busy Saturday during the height of the summer travel season. The snafu left more than 17,000 international passengers stuck for hours in planes waiting on the tarmac because the system for checking them through customs had gone on the fritz.

Frighteningly, such meltdowns are beginning to look like an annual event. Last summer, there were four technical glitches in LAX's air traffic control systems in the space of a month during July and August, delaying dozens of flights and possibly compromising passenger safety.

There is no direct connection between last year's incidents and Saturday's. They involved different systems administered by different federal agencies (the air traffic system is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, and Customs is a division of the Department of Homeland Security). Still, they did have a couple of things in common. First, there appeared to be a lack of on-site technicians capable of solving the problems. Second, the backup systems and contingency plans were inadequate, causing the delays to last much longer than they should have.

Last year's snafus prompted enough of a public outcry to get the attention of FAA officials, who agreed to sit down with representatives of several airlines and Southern California airports to try to resolve them. The result was a list of fixes since put into effect by the agency, including more redundancies in its air traffic system and improved maintenance. Customs clearly should do the same thing, and L.A.'s congressional delegation should see that it does.

Meanwhile, the problems raise an important question: Why does this stuff keep happening here? The FAA and Customs operate at every international airport in the U.S., yet few if any are plagued with as many glitches as LAX. Local officials tend to blame the federal government for not devoting as much attention and resources to LAX as it deserves, while airlines grouse about the crumbling infrastructure of an airport that hasn't had a major upgrade in decades.

Both have a point. LAX has been neglected for much too long, and next time, the consequences could well be more severe than passenger inconvenience.

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