At 12:49 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon last December, an e-mail alert to management at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport indicated a suspicious burning smell at the world's busiest airport was not a concern.
“UPDATED -Incident Detail: The burning smell incident has cleared. AFD [Atlanta Fire Department] advised no sign of smoke or fire. Normal operations have resumed.”
But it was a false sense of comfort. A massive power outage grounding operations at the world's busiest airport and lasting 11 hours was about to ensue, stranding passengers in the dark during a chaotic, confusing situation and making international news.
Hundreds of pages of e-mails exclusively obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the Dec. 17 blackout paint a dizzying scene as officials from dozens of agencies and companies tried to figure out what was going on, how to fix the problem, and how to handle the tens of thousands of passengers stuck in the terminal and on planes on the tarmac.
The scramble to respond shows how complex the issue became, involving the airlines, airport officials, Georgia Power, the mayor's office, concessionaires, hoteliers, MARTA, state and federal agencies, and others.
A log of tasks by the airport’s operations staff lists an array of agencies they contacted to coordinate response during the outage, and the struggles due to spotty cellular service amid the blackout.
The documents also illuminate how a private airline consortium over which the airport has little jurisdiction is responsible for managing utilities at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Within 17 minutes of the message saying normal operations had resumed on Dec. 17, another alert went out at 1:06 p.m.: "There are reports that power is out throughout the airport."
At 1:10 p.m. Kofi Smith, CEO of the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corp., the private airline consortium, sent an email: “All, We have a major power outage at the airport affecting many parts of the airport.”
“I just left church and I am headed in,” Smith wrote in his e-mail.
AATC, which handles operations and maintenance at the Atlanta airport but whose emergency plan it contends is not public, controls access to the power vaults along with Georgia Power.
The consortium’s shareholders are listed on its website as American, United, Delta, Delta Connection carrier ExpressJet and Southwest. Hartsfield-Jackson, which previously did not have a seat on AATC’s board, recently secured a non-voting position.
At 1:46 p.m., an alert said the fire departmenthad responded to the smell of smoke and a fire coming from the Georgia Power switch room on Concourse E, with the fire department and the utility "assessing the situation."
By 1:50 p.m., after TSA checkpoints shut down due to the lack of power, airport staff reported that Terminal South was nearing 100 percent capacity.
Three minutes later, Smith e-mailed airline executives at Delta, American and United and a deputy general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson saying he was five minutes away from the airport.
“I have directed our duty manager to where I think the problem might be,” Smith wrote. He wrote what he suspected: “my thoughts - major failure/fire at one of Georgia Power electric vaults” and said his duty manager saw smoke coming from one of the vaults.
For much of the afternoon, passengers were left in the dark, and with little to no information on when flights might resume. While the airport was tweeting some information, for hours there were few details about how long it would take to get the power back on and what that would mean for passengers waiting to get on planes.
And with the spotty cellular service, many passengers couldn’t easily see the airport’s tweets.
The airport fully activated its emergency operations center by 2:30 p.m., directing officials to report to the Hapeville facility. While the e-mails open a window into some of the communication between officials, much communication also happened face-to-face in the emergency operations center, via text message, radio or other methods.
By 3 p.m., crews had determined there was a fire in the underground tunnel near Concourse E. It took until 4:50 p.m. for the fire department to extinguish the blaze and allow Georgia Power engineers to enter the tunnel.
Shortly after that, Smith e-mailed from inside a utility tunnel and said: “We have located the fire. My signal is very bad in these tunnels. I am communicating with Georgia Power to get us back up.”
By then, some passengers had been in the airport for about four hours without power.
“We have a major failure,” Smith wrote. “The repair is going to take a great deal of time.”
At 6:10 p.m., Smith e-mailed that power on Concourse F was coming back on and the rest of the airport would be back up and operational by midnight.
Greg Kennedy, Delta’s senior vice president of operations for hubs, sent a terse response: “We need lights on B concourse!”
Kennedy’s e-mail came after passengers had been on the concourse with no power for more than five hours.
Then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said during an 8:30 p.m. press conference that there was no looting during the power outage.
However, an e-mail later in the evening from Hartsfield-Jackson’s Centralized Command and Control Center said there was a “disturbance incident” at a Boar’s Head kiosk at on Concourse A. Concessionaires began closing down early on in the outage due to the lack of power.
“Atlanta Police advised the inventory was cleared at the Boars Head kiosk upon arrival,” according to the e-mail.
Communications also show that three days after the outage, airport officials were still working to handle frustrated passengers.
“It is my understanding that we will not be refunding” customers, Steve Mayers, the airport’s director of customer experience wrote in an e-mail to other airport officials.
And there were already concerns about the airport’s liability.
“It is my strong recommendation that we have the Law Department review anything before either calling or emailing” passengers, wrote Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie in an e-mail on Dec. 20. “I have a call with the Law Department at 11:30 a.m.”
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