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United computers back up, but flight delays could last for days

A computer failure led many delayed flights with United Airlines O'Hare Airport Saturday. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

A computer failure led to many delayed flights with United Airlines at O'Hare Airport Saturday. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: June 21, 2011 12:54PM

After a five-hour “network connectivity” issue left thousands of United Airlines customers stranded at the nation’s airports Friday night, operations started to return to normal Saturday as weary-eyed travelers made their way through long, winding lines at O’Hare to rebook flights.

The system-wide outage occurred about 7:15 p.m., leaving customers waiting for answers and customer service representatives armed with only pen and paper. United’s system came back up about midnight, but delays could last for days as the system gets caught up, the airline said Saturday.

Kristie Nichols, 23, and Charity Rauls, 27, were on their way from their home in Denver to Tajikistan to work with human trafficking victims when they missed their connecting flight to Poland. The two said they spent nearly six hours in a customer service line to get a hotel accommodation coupon worth $99.

“That’s probably the most helpless I’ve ever felt. I couldn’t do anything,” Nichols complained.

They were told there wouldn’t be a flight out for them until Monday — and they can’t get their bags with their clothes or other personal items.

“They won’t let us reclaim anything,” Nichols said, “so we’re just living out of our carry-on until Tuesday” when they’re scheduled to arrive in Tajikistan.

The outage offered a glimpse into how airports operated pre-computers. Flight departure, airport processing and reservation systems and the United website were all down. And there were no operational kiosks.

Carmelita Pasia, a United supervisor, insisted most affected flights and passengers made it out Saturday morning.

“Our load for Saturday is only 5,000 [passengers], so whatever is left over from yesterday, they’ll be reboarding today,” said Pasia, who got to work at 2:30 a.m. to wrestle with a pile of handwritten notes about stranded passengers. “It’s been a long day.”

While travel plans for thousands of passengers nationwide were impacted, United would not say how many passengers or flights were affected in Chicago or comment on the cause of the outage. A travel waiver was issued to affected travelers, allowing them to rebook without additional cost, United spokesman Michael Trevino said.

But a waiver wasn’t going to fix Anthony Antol’s problem. The 15-year-old from Sacramento will be spending another two weeks with his grandparents on the Southwest Side. The teen, traveling alone, had hoped to get back home to his parents before they left for vacation — and then he was going to work as a camp counselor.

But now his summer plans have changed.

“I can’t go home now because my parents are out of town,” Antol said. “It’s a huge inconvenience for everyone.”

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