Power back on after outage strands thousands at Atlanta airport
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
A major power outage halted air traffic Sunday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for 11 hours, grounding all of the hub's outgoing flights and halting incoming traffic for tens of thousands of travelers hoping to land at the world's busiest airport.
The disruption, coming just eight days before Christmas, promises to wreak havoc on one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.
The outage, reported after a fire ravaged an underground power substation around 1 p.m. ET, forced travelers out of the darkened terminal and into an icy rain for hours, witnesses reported. It stranded others on Atlanta's tarmac as they waited to get off of incoming flights.
Others were trapped on electric trams that run between terminals — they had to be rescued by firefighters.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed later said officials couldn't immediately rule out terrorism because the source of the fire remained unknown.
Through the afternoon, as utility crews worked to fix the outage, passengers described a chaotic scene inside a smoke-filled terminal.
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Traveler Olivia Dorfman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she was about to board a flight home to Indiana when the lights went out. Ten minutes later, she said, "a buzzer went off in the background — that has been going on for over an hour and every so often bright lights flash in the ceiling.”
Dorfman said smoke filled the area near a gate in the D Concourse. She said at least one other passenger described the acrid smoke as that of an electrical fire.
At various times, airport workers tried to herd passengers toward the smoky area and away from it, Dorfman said. “This has been very bizarre. No one seems to know what they’re doing.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered a ground stop for flights into the airport, holding them at departure airports across the world. The FAA said departures also were delayed.
Several airlines, including Southwest and Delta, said they were canceling flights due to the power outage. In a statement, Delta said it had canceled more than 450 flights and was "working to deplane customers from aircraft that have not been able to park at a gate due to the outage."
Delta later said it was canceling some 300 Monday flights as well.
Country music star Travis Tritt tweeted late Sunday afternoon that he was stuck in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., because of the outage. "How on earth can the busiest airport on earth have power down and no backup generators up and running?" he wrote. "This makes ATL airport designers look dumb as hell!"
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Around 7:30 p.m., airport officials said power was restored to the airport's Concourse F. Crews were working "with great urgency" to restore power to the rest of the airport. At 11:19, the airport tweeted that power was back on in the Atrium and Concourses T, A and B. Around midnight, the city announced power had been restored to the whole airport.
Late Sunday, Georgia Power said the outage was caused by an electrical fire at an underground substation. It said it expected to have electricity restored to the airport by midnight.
Speaking to reporters late Sunday, Mayor Reed said officials hadn't found any evidence of wrongdoing but couldn't rule out terrorism for the moment.
"Because we don't know the source of the fire, we have no way of absolutely knowing at this time that our system may have been tampered with in order to create this kind of chaos and confusion," he said.
Reed said city officials were “deeply sorry” for the inconvenience to travelers, and that once they figured out what caused the fire, they would discuss implementing a better electrical backup plan for the airport.
Shortly after 7 p.m., Reed announced all passengers that had been stuck for hours on the tarmac had been able to deplane.
Hartsfield-Jackson last year handled 104,171,935 passengers, the most of any airport worldwide.
Because the outage took place on a Sunday, Reed said, flight volume was lower than it would have been on a weekday. He noted that no medical emergencies were reported.
Atlanta officials mobilized workers at the Georgia International Convention Center and said the city would provide shuttle services for anyone who needed a place to stay for the night. Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant usually closed on Sunday so its employees can attend church and be with family, was providing food.
The outage created a ripple effect at airports across the U.S., including at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
The website flightview.com said 39 flights that were scheduled to arrive between 3:50 p.m. and just after midnight to Detroit Metro were canceled. Nearly 20 departures scheduled for Sunday afternoon and evening were canceled.
At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Detroit Metro's Twitter account, @DTWeetin, warned travelers to brace for more problems Monday: "The @ATLairport power outage affected flights at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. If you're heading to #ATL on Monday, check with your airline for flight status."
In Dallas, hundreds of passengers were looking to catch another flight or a hotel room in North Texas.
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport listed a dozen flight cancellations Sunday afternoon and evening for both American and Delta.
Southwest Airlines said seven direct flights — three to Atlanta and four to Dallas — were canceled out of Dallas Love Field on Sunday. An additional five Southwest flights bound for Atlanta from Dallas did not make it past planned stops in Austin and Houston.
The net effect at D/FW were long lines at the ticket counter at Terminal E where Delta saw the majority of cancellations.
In a statement the FAA said the airport's tower could operate normally, but that departures were delayed "because airport equipment in the terminals is not working."
Later, the FAA tweeted that it would keep air traffic controllers available to be able to handle flights when they resumed.
Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former American Airlines executive, said it likely will be Tuesday before Delta’s operations in Atlanta return to normal, and for passengers “it could be most of the week” because there aren’t many open seats on other flights in the last week before Christmas.
“Tomorrow is going to be a long and difficult day for everybody,” Mann said.
One bit of good news, according to Mann: Delta has more spare planes and available crews in Atlanta than anywhere else, which will help it to recover.
Still, when flights at Atlanta were grounded for most of one day last spring, it took Delta five days — and about 4,000 canceled flights — before it fully recovered.
Like Sunday’s outage, that April storm hit Delta’s largest hub at a busy travel time when there weren’t many empty seats to accommodate customers from canceled flights. At the time, CEO Ed Bastian vowed that Delta would make “significant improvements” to its system for scheduling and tracking aircraft crews to recover more quickly from disruptions.
As the hours dragged on in the terminals, the darkness could be unnerving.
Malou Cadavillo and her 16-month-old granddaughter sat on a motionless luggage carousel waiting for a car seat after making it to baggage claim by the light of fellow passengers' mobile phones.
Cadavillo told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her grandsons, 7 and 11, were uneasy. One of them added, “I hope there’s no monsters down here."
Contributing: Michael King, WXIA-TV, Atlanta; Ann Zaniewski, Detroit Free Press; WFAA-TV, Dallas-Fort Worth, and The Associated Press.