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United flights out of Hawaii back on schedule

By Star-Advertiser and Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 9:50 p.m. HST, Jun 18, 2011

United Airlines flights were flying out of Hawaii airports on time on Saturday after a five-hour computer outage a day earlier left thousands of travelers stranded at airports around the country.

The Honolulu Airport’s website showed United flights were leaving as scheduled Saturday. No problems from the computer glitch were reported in Hawaii, said Department of Transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

Friday’s outage caused two outbound flights from Honolulu to be delayed for several hours.

The system was down from about 2 to 7 p.m. Hawaii time Friday, forcing United to cancel 16 flights Friday and 15 Saturday nationally, according to the Associated Press. A spokeswoman for the airlines said she could not comment about the underlying cause of the system crash, the report said.

The Associated Press reported that United passengers flying the rest of the weekend have been advised to print out their boarding pass at home instead of at airport kiosks as the airline struggles to re-book stranded passengers after a computer system failure shut the airline down Friday night.

United had announced on Twitter that things were returning to normal last night: "Flight status and flight rebooking are fully refreshed on Thanks again for your patience." Officials did not elaborate.

Passengers saw their flight information vanish from airport screens, and thousands were stranded as United canceled 36 flights and delayed 100 worldwide during the five-hour outage.

The airline still didn't have an explanation on Saturday morning for the outage.

United's reservation system at Honolulu Airport came at least partially back online about 6:50 p.m. Friday, following a five-hour delay that delayed a UAL flight to Chicago. It was part of a national problem affecting the airline’s reservation system.

Some passengers at the Honolulu Airport check-in lobby cheered when some — but not all — of the self-check-in kiosks came back online.

To try to alleviate the congestion, the airline allowed passengers with tickets on today's flights to cancel or delay their travel to a later date without charge. Luckily, Saturday is one of the lighter travel days.

United spokesman Charles Hobart said late Saturday afternoon that the airline didn't expect to cancel any more flights this weekend due to the computer problems, though delays might continue.

The outage started about 2:15 p.m. Hawaii time Friday. Long lines of passengers formed at airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago. Some passengers ended up spending the night at airports or found hotel rooms in the cities where they were stranded.

United said its flight departures, airport processing and reservation system, including its website, were affected by the outage.

Los Angeles International Airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said the outage affected about 2,500 people at that airport alone. Courtney Mickalonis, spokeswoman for Dulles International Airport in Washington, said officials there handed out blankets to about 300 passengers stranded overnight.

Nina and Mark Whitford of Brockville, Ontario, ended up in Chicago while on a layover on their flight home from Minneapolis. They said they were headed to a hotel to spend the night and were dismayed when an airline worker told them they would have to mail in their hotel receipt to get reimbursed.

Others on their flight had rented cars to complete their trip to Canada, said Nina Whitford, 35. But after two hours of waiting, they still didn't have their baggage.

"Some people were sleeping and some people were getting very angry because no one was giving us any answers," she said.

Ron Schaffer, an Apple Inc. engineer, was trying to connect with a flight to Grand Junction, Colo., after flying into Denver from Orlando, Fla.

"A hundred yards of kiosks, and every one of them closed," he said, adding there were no flights listed on monitors. "Workers were trying to answer questions. They have no ability to do anything manually. They can't check baggage. You can't get baggage. You are really stuck."

Some Continental Airlines passengers also were affected by the outage.

United and Continental merged in May 2010. They still operate as separate airlines but are slowly integrating systems. United spokesman Charles Hobart said Saturday morning that Continental was able to dispatch flights normally, but some of its airport kiosks were affected. He would not comment on the total number of cancelations or passengers affected, saying the airline was still updating its information.

Naveena and Vidya Maddali's Continental flight from Seattle into O'Hare International Airport arrived on time at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, but their connecting United flight to Saginaw, Mich., was delayed repeatedly and then cancelled about 8 a.m. The software engineers had been trying to make it to Michigan for a high school graduation party that started at noon, but the earliest flight they could rebook on left at 1 p.m. With the time difference between states, there was no way they'd make the party.

"The whole purpose of the trip got ruined because of the delays," said Naveena Maddali, 27.

Her husband said he wished the connecting flight had been cancelled sooner because if they had rented a car immediately, they could have made the party.

Airlines today place greater reliance on computers than a decade ago. Most passengers are now asked to check-in online, at airport kiosks or via their mobile phones. When the system crashes, the problems are just that much greater.

On a typical day, United cancels 15 to 30 flights for reasons ranging from fog to maintenance problems or staffing shortages. Those are understandable. Passengers and others said a computer glitch should not have grounded the airline.

"They're infrequent, but the fact that they happen at all is puzzling. These are mission critical," Mann said. "The idea that they would fail is troubling."

While the airlines have sleek, modern check-in kiosks at the airports, the underlying reservation system behind them dates back to the 1980s, Mann said. Many airlines that went through bankruptcies in the past decade, including United, didn't invest in new systems.

When the system fails, flight plans and dispatch operations must all be done on paper.

"There are fewer and fewer people at airlines who are familiar with or able to operate with a manual system," Mann said.

Business travelers are usually hurt less by such disruptions than people flying for vacation or personal reasons because airlines first help passengers with elite status in frequent flier programs and those who bought more-expensive, unrestricted tickets.

Jon Ryan, who had planned to fly nonstop from San Francisco to London on business Friday evening, was rebooked on partner airline Air Canada after two hours on the phone. His new itinerary: San Francisco to Toronto to Halifax to London.

"The poor, poor ticket agents were just bewildered and sitting behind the counter. Everybody was just staring and didn't know what to do," Ryan said. "The line grew and grew and then people went from sitting down to lying down."

At the San Francisco International Airport, hundreds of passengers stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

Still, some people took the delays in stride.

Steve Cole, 51, of Bloxwich, England, was at the San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to Las Vegas.

"These are the things you have to expect when you're on holiday." Cole said. "I'm missing a night of gambling," he added with a grin.


Star-Advertiser reporter Robert Shikina contributed to this story from Honolulu.
Associated Press writers Scott Mayerowitz in New York, Barbara Rodriguez in Chicago, John S. Marshall in San Francisco and Denise Petski in Los Angeles and photographers Rick Bower in Denver and Charles Rex Arbogast in Chicago also contributed to this report.

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