What a mess! Thousands of bags missed flights in Phoenix

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PHOENIX (KPHO) - The baggage screen systems at Sky Harbor International Airport returned to normal on Thursday night, hours after there were massive baggage delays due to issues with the computer server that automates the electronic screening of checked luggage.

At around 9 p.m., TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said the screening systems were operational. Testing continued throughout the night in preparation for Friday's flights.

On Friday morning, Melendez said delayed bags from Thursday had been screened.

But for about 14 hours on Thursday, the systems were down and caused a huge baggage mess at one of the busiest airports in the nation.

Melendez described the technical issues as "unprecedented" and said more than 3,000 bags were not put on their designated flights.

Most flights departed as scheduled, so while travelers were getting to their destinations on time, their checked bags were not.

"The TSA in Phoenix is experiencing delays in its checked bag screening system. A backup system is in place, but checked bags are likely to be delayed reaching their destinations," Deputy Aviation Director Julie Rodriguez said early Thursday afternoon. "The Airport is advising passengers to avoid checking luggage if possible."

Melendez said early on that bags were being looked at, but it was slow going.

"We're using alternative screening methods to get bags on flights, but the alternative process is more time consuming than our automated system," he said.

"They said they had to do the bags manually, that's all they said," said a traveler.

That means the majority of passengers' luggage were put on later flights. A few planes, however, were held.

"We are seeing flight delays solely because of bags," Erin Benson, a spokeswoman for United, said Thursday. Those delays were 45 minutes or less.

"It's very stressful because I hope everything is still there that I packed because they're hand-checking it, number one, and number two, that it gets there on time," said traveler Mindy McLarren.

Melendez did not elaborate on the problem but reiterated that only checked bags were affected. That's why both the TSA and Sky Harbor were advising travelers to carry on their luggage if they can.

In addition to implementing "alternative screening tools," the TSA and Sky Harbor turned to other airports for help.

Video and photos from the airport showed hundreds of bags sitting in a parking lot between Terminal 3 and Terminal 4 that is usually used for special events.

"These bags will be driven to nearby airports ... screened and then flown on to their destinations," Rodriguez said, emphasizing that the process is safe and urging travelers to "bring on what you need for the next few days."

The "nearby airports" that will handle the backed up baggage are in L.A. (6-hour drive), Las Vegas (5-hour drive) and San Diego (6- hour drive). Even though the issue is with TSA equipment and processes, the transportation of the delayed bags to L.A., Vegas and San Diego is the responsibility of the airlines, according to Melendez.

Traveler Dave Galanis tweeted a photo of bags awaiting screening at one of the ticket desks.

The computer glitch had been affecting the automated screening systems at Sky Harbor since before 7 a.m. Thursday.

According to the TSA, the inline baggage systems handle the bulk of checked luggage. When everything is working properly only about 10 percent of all checked bags are hand-searched by TSA officers.