Atlanta airport power returns, and with it stress, delays, more cancellations

City officials repeatedly apologize for outage
Staff hands out bottled water to stranded travelers at the darkened Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Dec. 17.
Staff hands out bottled water to stranded travelers at the darkened Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Dec. 17.

ATLANTA — The lights were back on at the world’s busiest airport on Monday, but ticket counters were jammed with hundreds of passengers looking for a way out, after an intense electrical fire blacked the airport out for much of Sunday. Though the fire caused no injuries, it exposed flaws in a system whose temporary failure was felt by travelers around the globe.

The fire at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had not only knocked out the airport’s primary power source, it also prevented the backup system from kicking in. “The fire was so intense, so hot, that it caused a switching system, which switches to the backup, to malfunction,” the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, said in a news conference.

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The fact that a key element of the backup system could be vulnerable to a fire that hobbled the main one was a problem that Reed said would probably be addressed. He said Georgia Power, the regional utility that runs the underground facility where the fire occurred, was considering a series of concrete casings that would protect the switches in case of another blaze.

But critics had already spent a day expressing their astonishment and anger over the failure. Anthony R. Foxx, who was transportation secretary during the Obama administration, was among the many passengers who spent several hours stuck aboard aircraft stranded on the Atlanta tarmac on Sunday, unable to unload at the terminal.

Among a series of posts on Twitter, Foxx wrote:

Joe Britton, 56, was waiting in a United Airlines check-in line with his family on Monday. They had come to Atlanta for a quick visit, highlighted by dinner with former basketball star and television personality Charles Barkley.

They went to the airport at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, in advance of a Delta Air Lines flight home to California, which was scheduled to depart at 6:40 p.m. They were dropped off at an outdoor baggage check area, but they never really got much further.

“It was pitch black inside,” Britton said of the terminal.

“We came in here for help, but there was no one who could help us,” said Britton’s wife, Michelle, 57. “There wasn’t a single Delta employee who knew what was going on. They could have at least used a megaphone to say, ‘This is what’s happening.’”

That sentiment was echoed by numerous airport patrons, who described an eerie and confusing scene after the power went out around 1 p.m. Employees seemed unable to tell anyone where to go or what to do, and matters only worsened when the sun set a few hours later, bathing the concourses in darkness. The power would not come on again until 11:45 p.m.

Some travelers said they heard a recorded announcement playing over and over, saying that an emergency had occurred and advising everyone to stand by for further instructions.

“No further instructions ever came,” said Elizabeth Burton, 29, who arrived from Mobile, Alabama, and missed a connecting flight to Pittsburgh, where she had a business meeting.

There was no indication that foul play was involved in the fire. But the incident showed how, in an increasingly interconnected world, a problem in an obscure electrical substation in north central Georgia can generate far-ranging ripples of havoc.

Hartsfield-Jackson, of course, is no ordinary airport. It hosts about 275,000 passengers on a typical day. Delta, the world’s second-largest airline and a partner of giants like Air France-KLM, has its headquarters at the airport and controls dozens of gates.

Delta’s North American operations were badly stunted by the blackout, but beyond that, it had to cancel or divert nonstop flights between Atlanta and cities in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. Even as the airline was wheezing back toward a normal schedule on Monday, it canceled nearly 400 flights for the day.

Major airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United, waived certain fees or charges for passengers with imminent travel to, from or through Atlanta because of the disruptions.

The turmoil is likely to shadow travel over the next few days and into the frenzy of the holiday travel season, which analysts define as Dec. 23 to Jan. 1. AAA predicted this month that about 6.4 million people will travel by air during the year-end travel rush, an increase of about 4 percent from last year.

The scene at the airport Monday morning was crowded and stressful, even as airline employees passed out Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Chick-fil-A sandwiches. Some travelers crashed out on the floors, their heads propped on their luggage. At one point, a Christmas-caroling quartet decked out in Victorian garb serenaded a crowd, only to be met by one of those solitary claps that can feel more devastating than crickets.

The airport is owned by the city government, and has extended the historic reputation of Atlanta, a city founded in the 1830s as a railroad hub, as a city that cashes in on transportation. In recent years, however, Atlanta has suffered some major transportation debacles, including a relatively light 2014 snowstorm that brought the metropolitan area to a near-standstill, and the collapse earlier this year of a heavily traveled overpass on Interstate 85 after a fire was set beneath it.

On Monday, Reed, a Democrat who will leave office in a few weeks because of term limits, praised the “airport team” for pulling together “in an amazing fashion.”

But he also said that the airport needs better emergency lighting, and could have done a better job at communicating with travelers and “really addressing the anxiety that people were feeling.”

In an apologetic video on Monday, Georgia Power’s chief executive, Paul Bowers, said the outage began with a fire in a service tunnel that helps power Hartsfield-Jackson, a sprawling complex with six passenger concourses.

“Not only did the fire disrupt our primary source of power to the concourses, but also the backup service as well,” said Bowers, who added that “our primary focus now is to investigate what happened to ensure that never happens again.”

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