Baggage terminal breaks down at JFK

July 31, 2008 5:45:31 AM PDT
A software glitch crippled the baggage handling system in an American Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport on Wednesday, delaying some flights and causing a luggage pileup at the ticket counters. The malfunction created headaches throughout the day for passengers flying out of Terminal 8, one of the newer buildings at JFK.

Thousands of customers had to leave their luggage behind and hope it would be delivered later. Hundreds of bags accumulated in the terminal lobby. The breakdown was galling to some passengers already steamed over the airline's recent decision to start charging fees for checked bags on flights within the U.S. and Canada.

"I'm just not happy. I think it's crazy," said Mike Howell, who was en route to San Diego after visiting New York City. "If they do charge people $15 per bag, they should get it right."

The problem developed at around 4:45 a.m., when a piece of software failed in the computer that reads the bar code on each piece of tagged luggage and then whisks the bag via conveyor belt to the proper gate.

With the automated system down, airline employees had to sort each bag by hand, an overwhelming task.

The airline tried delaying flights for 60 to 90 minutes, hoping that would be enough extra time to get them loaded, but lots of luggage still didn't make it aboard.

American was giving passengers the choice of waiting out the problem, traveling from another area airport or flying on and having the bags delivered later.

"Until then, we appreciate our customers' patience as we work through this issue," said airline spokesman Tim Wagner.

By Wednesday evening, technicians had diagnosed the problem but were still attempting to fix it, said airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely. She said she could not estimate how long the work might take or how many passengers had been affected.

Because of the crisis, American waived its fees Wednesday for travelers checking fewer than three bags at JFK. Starting in June, the airline, like most of its competitors, has charged $15 for one checked bag or $40 for two bags. Passengers may still carry on luggage for free.

Wagner noted, however, that a majority of the flights affected by Wednesday's baggage problem were international and thus not subject to the fees in the first place.

The airline had about 67 scheduled departures at JFK on Wednesday. At least five flights were canceled.

Hundreds of bags were diverted to nearby LaGuardia and Newark airports and put on alternative flights.

The airline brought in extra employees from the surrounding area to help process the baggage by hand, Huguely said. A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said its equipment wasn't affected by the malfunction but extra staff had been deployed to help keep the bag screening operation moving smoothly.

Huguely said she could offer no immediate estimate on how long it might take the airline to sort through the backlog and get each bag to its proper destination.

She said that she had heard of no lengthy customer-service lines at destination airports and that the airline had set up staffed kiosks in the baggage claim area of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to take passenger requests and give fliers tracking numbers for their bags.

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