Full backup power at Hartsfield-Jackson still up to three years away

The airport will get 20 industrial generators, with one at each terminal.

A year after a massive power outage stranded travelers from around the world at Hartsfield-Jackson International, officials say it take up to three years before the world's busiest airport has full backup power.

The Dec. 17, 2017 outage left the Atlanta airport without electricity for about 11 hours, with tens of thousands of passengers left waiting in the dark terminals and concourses.

"As we all know that was a rough day for passengers, for airline employees, for airport employees," said Hartsfield-Jackson's assistant general manager of planning and development Tom Nissalke. "We don't want to go through this again."

Atlanta Airlines Terminal Co. CEO Kofi Smith explains plans for backup power generators, flanked by Georgia Power senior vice president Bentina Terry, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport assistant general manager Tom Nissalke and Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden.
Atlanta Airlines Terminal Co. CEO Kofi Smith explains plans for backup power generators, flanked by Georgia Power senior vice president Bentina Terry, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport assistant general manager Tom Nissalke and Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden.

A $130 million project to install a bank of backup generators strong enough to power the entire airport is still in the design stages. Nissalke said it is expected to take up to three years to complete the design and installation of the permanent generators with about 65 megawatts of capacity to power the airport's 7 million square feet.

“It’s going to be a very long project,” Nissalke said. Airport officials have said it will take time to get environmental approvals, procure more than 21 diesel generators and install them, and much of the electrical work will have to be done overnight.

It was a failure of Georgia Power equipment that triggered a fire in an underground tunnel at the airport a year ago, damaging power cables and causing a loss of electricity throughout the terminals and concourses starting just after 1 p.m. and lasting until close to midnight.

“What happened on Dec. 17 was the perfect storm. It was a total anomaly where everything went out,” Nissalke said. Between now and 2021, when the generators are expected to be complete, “if there’s a fire or similar incident… We can promise you that the response will be quicker, the recovery will be quicker,” he said.

The airport, Georgia Power and the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Co., the airline cooperative that operates and maintains the terminal and concourses, have put in some smaller improvements.

Temporary generators from Georgia Power are available if needed in the interim to provide emergency power for a concourse.

A mass exodus was evident from the concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as a power outage dragged on for hours and into the evening. (Photo by Rick Crotts / AJC)
A mass exodus was evident from the concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as a power outage dragged on for hours and into the evening. (Photo by Rick Crotts / AJC)

But lights and electricity throughout the two terminals and seven concourses and power for the critical passenger loading bridges to board planes require significantly more juice.

For now, the airport has updated generators on Concourse E to power gates and allow planes to unload. During the outage, hundreds of passengers were stuck on planes on the tarmac for hours.

Also added are more than 90 cameras, including in the Georgia Power tunnel to detect smoke and flames for early detection of a fire. Airlines paid for the cameras, which cost about $1.4 million.

“The problem that we had was determining, ‘Where was it [the fire]?’” said Kofi Smith, CEO of the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Co. “We have to have some eyes in our most critical places.”

Bullhorns to communicate to passengers have also been added throughout the airport.

Georgia Power said it spent about $6 million this year on improvements to improve reliability, added new automated switches and had a team of more than 150 employees examine the power delivery system and inspect 21 substations.

Ultimately, the expense for the permanent backup generators will be covered by airline rent payments.

WHY IT MATTERS

  • The world's busiest airport didn't have enough backup power to handle flights during an electricity outage throughout the terminals and concourses a year ago.
  • The blackout stranded tens of thousands of passengers from around the world inside the dark terminals and concourses, cost Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines $40 million and caused a major black eye for Atlanta.
  • On the one-year anniversary of the outage, airport officials say a plan for permanent generators for full backup is in the design stages will take up 30 to 36 months to complete.

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