A Customs Computer Outage Strands Thousands in Airports, Again

John Amis/AP

It’s not the first time a Customs and Border Protection system caused headaches for holiday travelers.

Thousands of international travelers spent New Year’s Day stranded in airports after a system outage shut down Customs and Border Protection stations across the country for two hours.

The outage, which lasted from roughly 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. EST, mirrored a disruption that took place almost exactly a year earlier when a wave of holiday travelers overwhelmed the agency’s passenger screening system.

A CBP spokesperson said the agency took immediate action to address the issue and continued to screen passengers against relevant national security databases during the outage. All airports are currently back online and “there is no indication the service disruption was malicious in nature,” they said in a statement.

The outage struck airports in New York City, San Francisco, Dallas and a number of other major hubs across the country. In Miami alone, more than 2,000 people found themselves waiting in line to get their passports checked, according to CBS Miami.

While CBP declined tell Nextgov which specific processing systems were affected, Monday’s malfunction harkens back to similar a debacle that took place last year. On Jan. 2, 2017, an influx of holiday travelers overwhelmed the agency’s Treasury Enforcement Communications System and caused it to shut down for roughly four hours, clogging airports nationwide.

Built in the 1980s, TECS is the main system CBP uses to check foreigners against watchlists as they enter and leave the country. A Homeland Security investigation launched after last year’s outage found that the system lacks the ability to be properly tested, maintained and monitored, and the agency doesn’t have a sufficient backup plan in place if the system fails.

“Until such deficiencies are addressed, CBP lacks a means to minimize the possibility and impact of similar system outages in the future,” the Homeland Security inspector general reported.

Officers got the system up and running after the January 2017 outage by switching to an older version, but without taking steps to update the TECS environment, investigators said the system remains vulnerable to another shutdown.

The IG office made five recommendations for improving the system and preventing it from breaking down in the future, including more thorough software testing and more timely patching. Investigators also want CBP to more closely monitor the system to spot potential problems and make it mandatory to take recovery action after the first hour of an outage.

CBP would not confirm whether the most recent outage stemmed from a TECS failure, but as of Nov. 21, the IG reported Homeland Security had not yet resolved the issues it highlighted within the background check system.