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Customs system shuts down, forces international arrivals to wait for hours

Twitter image via @MolinaAshli

By Steve Bittenbender
Editor, Government Security News

The final day of the 2016-17 holiday travel season hit a snag as the computer system responsible for processing international travelers entering the United States went offline late Monday evening.

The outage, affecting U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s automated I-94 records system, lasted about four hours, but that was long enough to cause delays at several international airports as CBP officials needed to manually process passengers during the downtime.

Just before 10:30 p.m. ET Monday, the agency announced the resumptions of the I-94 automated system at all airports.

“No indication the disruption was malicious in nature,” CBP posted on its official Twitter account, downplaying the notion the system may have been hacked or hit with a denial of service attack.

In a separate statement, the CPB said the outage started around 5 p.m. Despite the I-94 system going down, Customs agents still had access to federal databases, which allowed agents to screen passengers according to current security standards.

At Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, one traveler said the line for planes to arrive at a gate went at least 20 deep.

“Word from the pilot is that because (CBP) computers are down, they don't want a lot of planes emptying at the same time,” tweeted Kristin Klingshirn, who was returning from Mexico Monday

Klingshirn also noted that flight attendants on her plane passed out the I-94 paper forms they had on board but needed to explain how to complete the form because it was written in Spanish.

Travelers at other airports reported long lines inside international terminals as passengers waited to be processed.

“U.S. Customs system crashed, forcing massive, angry, starving crowds in #Miami (International) Airport,” tweeted Ashli Molina. “Sweating. Multiple people have fainted.” 

Among the other airports affected by the outage included John F. Kennedy International in New York, Logan International in Boston, Los Angeles International and Miami International. There were no reports of how many passengers were affected or how many flights were delayed as a result of the outage.

As New Year’s Day for 2017 fell on a Sunday, that pushed the federally recognized holiday to Monday. In turn, that gave most American workers an extra day off, allowing some to use that additional day for travel.

Hours before the outage hit, officials from LAX said they expected Monday to be the airport’s busiest travel day. At Florida’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, the 21st busiest airport in the country and another facility that experienced delays because of the Customs outage, officials had announced earlier that they expected 100,000 travelers to fly in or out of their airport Monday.

The CBP uses the I-94 system to track all foreign visitors entering the United States. The system also will revalidate an alien’s expired visa if the traveler qualifies for an automatic extension. The agency automated the I-94 system for travelers arriving through airports and seaports in 2013. Those entering on land still need to fill out the paper form.

In announcing the automation of the process, CBP anticipated it would save about 20 seconds of time per passenger at international airports.

According to CBP’s I-94 page: “This automation streamlines the entry process for travelers, facilitates security and reduces federal costs. CBP estimates that the automated process will save the agency $15.5 million a year.”


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