Georgia Power announced early Monday that power is fully restored to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport. More than 1,000 flights were ground on Sunday, stranding many passengers in planes and dark terminals. (Dec. 18) AP
The fire that knocked out Atlanta airport’s power for 11 hours Sunday erupted in a tunnel that housed both the main power lines and a backup supply, according to officials investigating the incident.
The cause of the fire beneath Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport remains under investigation, which could take several days, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers said Monday.
But the fire was traced to a failed switchgear, which is equipment that regulates the flow of power, in a tunnel that carries seven power lines from two sources to the airport.
“This fire was located adjacent to the redundant circuit cables and switching mechanisms serving the airport and those cables were damaged, resulting in the outage and loss of redundant service methods,” Georgia Power said Monday in a statement.
Today in the Sky: Timeline: How the Atlanta airport blackout unfolded
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he’d heard concerns about how the world’s busiest airport — with more than 100 million passengers a year — didn’t have a backup power supply. It did, he said, but the cables ran through the same tunnel as the regular supply and the intensity of the fire prevented fixing the cables faster.
“The straight answer to that question is: we absolutely do” have a redundant power supply, Reed told a news conference Sunday. “But because of the intensity of the fire, the switch that accesses the redundant system was damaged, which caused damage to two systems rather than one.”
Two substations serve the airport, Reed said.
“These kinds of fires are very rare with our substations,” Reed said. “It is an extremely rare occasion.”
The power outage canceled 1,100 flights Sunday and Monday while an estimated 30,000 people were at the airport, and more flight disruptions were possible Monday. Delta Air Lines, which is based in Atlanta, urged passengers to check on flight status and to arrive at the airport earlier.
Georgia Power first noticed faults in the system at 12:38 p.m. ET, according to Bentina Terry, a senior vice president at the company.
The fire was reported about 1 p.m., firefighters arrived about 4 minutes later, and it took about two hours to extinguish the fire in tunnels beneath the airport, Reed said. Then fans had to clear the tunnels of noxious fumes so power crews could assess the damage and repair it, he said. Power was restored by midnight.
“The airport, as Mayor Reed stated, has a very redundant system, a very robust system,” Terry said. “Right now, we don’t know the cause of the fire. It will take some time to investigate it.”
Other airports have routed power supplies separately, to avoid losing all power at once. For example, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has redundant power from separate transmission and distribution sources, spokesman David Magana said.
The airport and electricity provider Oncor have invested $40 million during the last three years to enhance reliability of operations, Magana said.
“All critical facilities at DFW airport have redundant electrical utility services which come from geographically independent transmission and distribution sources, ensuring there is no single source feed exposure,” Magana said.
By noon Monday, 16 departing flights from Dallas to Atlanta and 15 arriving flights had been canceled among Delta, American and Spirit airlines, Magana said. The airport is working with airlines to assist travelers whose plans were disrupted, he said.
Bowers at Georgia Power told ABC’s Good Morning America that seven power cables supply the airport from two sources through the single tunnel. The failed switchgear sits on the bottom of the tunnel and damaged all the cables, he said.
“There are dual feeds — two separate, redundant feeds to this airport,” Bowers said. “When that switchgear actually ignited, it created the flames that you saw in the pictures that impacted our cables coming from two different directions. That’s ultimately what caused the outage at the airport.”
The cable will be fixed by the end of the week, Bowers said. Options for the future include encasing the cables in concrete or separating the cables in different locations, he said.
“That’s a question we’ll have with the airport: what else can we do?” Bowers said.