SAN FRANCISCO – A software update – not hackers – caused a four-hour Customs computer outage that led to massive lines and frayed tempers at airports as the holiday week came to a close, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said Tuesday.
Changes the agency made Dec. 28 to software used to process travelers caused the glitch that shut down the agency’s systems from 5 pm EDT until about 9 p.m. on Monday, as many holiday travelers returned to the United States.
“At this time, there is no indication the service disruption was malicious in nature,” CBP said in a statement.
Customs agents used alternative procedures to screen travelers “while maintaining the highest levels of security,” CBP said.
To process the thousands of travelers who found themselves waiting in gargantuan lines to enter the United States at major airports around the country, Customs officers accessed records through backup systems. This allowed officers to process travelers on arrival, but at a much slower rate, as hundreds of tweets and social media posts attested.
A number of travelers missed connections and in some cases spent the night at airports. In Miami, the aviation department opened an auditorium where passengers could spend the night.
“We were concerned about the extensive delays that occurred yesterday, when a large number of our international customers had to be rebooked on later flights or on flights” Tuesday, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote Tuesday to CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske demanding a full explanation about the root cause of the outage. He voiced concern about a similar CBP outage in October 2015, when another computer glitch which slowed down international arrivals for 90 minutes.
“We’ve got to figure out why this happened and how we’re going to prevent outages in the future,” wrote Nelson, who serves on the committee overseeing aviation
The outage was unsurprising given the antiquated systems used at the nation’s borders, said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow.
“Technology at these facilities is too outdated to cope with existing travel volume, let alone the increased traffic we hope and expect to see at our gateway airports in years to come,” he said.
Poor infrastructure costs the USA money, Dow said.
“The U.S. customs and entry process is already notorious for dissuading long-haul visitors from dealing with the hassle of coming here, and lost inbound travelers means lost export dollars at a time when our economy can ill afford that,” he said.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in May found federal computer systems in general are “becoming increasingly obsolete,” using outdated programming and equipment, such as floppy disks still in use at the Defense Department.
Despite the antiquated systems, government spending on modernizing and enhancing computers has declined $7.3 billion from 2010 through 2017, according to GAO.
The problem at CBP echoed computer glitches that plagued airlines in recent years. Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights in August, Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights in July and other airlines have suffered similar problems from episodes of computer glitches.
The complexity of the airline systems means that a single software flaw can ripple across passenger reservations and flight schedules. In a similar way, a single problem at Customs could hinder access to passports, passenger records and watch lists, according to Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, which analyzes and consults on software.
“If you can’t get there, everybody has to slow down and start going manual,” Curtis said.
Curtis said the relatively short four-hour outage meant the agency had a recovery plan.
“The fact that they did get things back up reasonably quickly compared to these airline outages says that it took the system down, but they had a plan for how to recover or to quickly be able to find what the fault was,” Curtis said.