For total power loss, airport says it has a plan, but it doesn't *have* the plan

It's official. The plan for a total power outage that Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport insisted it had prior to December's 11-hour blackout is not in the airport's possession.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked to see it, under the state's open records act, after an airport news release said the plan was contained in a standard operating procedure chapter called "emergency response, electrical outage, large." Four weeks later, a letter from a public relations manager said "the City’s Department of Aviation does not have any materials responsive to your request."

So if the city's airport managers and workers don't possess copies, it remains a mystery how such a plan could have been implemented, or how it could have been implemented effectively. Also unclear is what, exactly, this plan entails.

On Dec. 17, a fire in an underground tunnel wiped out power and backup power to the world's busiest airport during peak holiday travel season. About 1,100 flights got canceled, affecting 30,000 travelers and causing headaches to ripple throughout the worldwide travel grid. Airlines likely lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue in the standstill.

Compounding the blackout, the city's botched communications response made Atlanta into a national embarrassment. The airport plunged into confusion and frustration.

Passengers sat in planes stranded on the tarmac. Travelers found themselves in darkened terminals, some seeing smoke, with no information about why the power was out, if they should leave or stay, or how to get food or water. Water fountains didn't work, and concessionaires shuttered their stands. Gate agents, TSA workers, police and front-line airport personnel seemed to have little information to offer. Travelers complained that there weren’t enough employees available to assist elderly and disabled people who were caught up in a mass exodus.

Quoting a deputy general manager, the AJC reported the next day that while the airport had conducted drills for partial outages – making plans to shuffle operations between terminals – it made zero preparations for the entire facility to go dark.

While then-Mayor Kasim Reed and airport General Manager Roosevelt Council profusely apologized for the overall debacle, their staff pushed back on the report of them having no plan. The airport said in a Dec. 22 written statement that "our Airport Emergency Plan addresses all hazards at the Airport and, following industry standards, is designed to expand and contract as necessary."

In addition, the statement said, a standard operating procedures chapter dealing with large outages "was utilized Sunday."

So why can't the airport show us that large outage plan? Because it's not part of the airport's standard operating procedures, but rather for a private entity, the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corp., the airport said. AATC, an airline cooperative that handles facility maintenance for the terminal and concourses, may have the plan, the response to the AJC's records request said.

Spokesman Reese McCranie told the AJC as much several days after the blackout, but the written response makes clear that city personnel don't have a copy in any shape or fashion.

"Please submit your request directly to AATC," the response to the AJC's open records request said.

Will do.

Meanwhile, the AJC has also asked for the airport's own emergency plan. That can't be released yet, the airport says, because TSA has to look over it first for any sensitive security information, and TSA may say it can't be released.

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper...