Atlanta airport security in spotlight after gun discharge

Travelers panicked, flights were delayed and passengers evacuated from one of Atlanta’s airport concourses Saturday after a firearm was discharged at a security gate.

A day later, with a week of holiday air travel underway, the armed passenger was still being sought by police and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was filled with long lines snaking their way to the security checkpoints.

On Sunday, travelers were reminded of the safety precautions with “No Weapons Beyond This Point” signage greeting them at the checkpoint entry.

A Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman said the airport is “in the process of determining what worked well and what needs improvement in our response to Saturday’s incident.”

The gun incident happened around 1:30 p.m. Saturday when the passenger, identified by police as 42-year-old Kenny Wells, lunged into his bag after security officers detected a prohibited item during a screening. Wells grabbed the firearm “at which point it discharged,” according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Three people sustained non-life-threatening injuries amid the ensuring airport turmoil, according to officials.

Wells fled the airport with the firearm in hand. Airport visitors posted videos on social media Saturday that showed chaos on the airport concourses as word spread of the incident.

The firearm discharge comes as Hartsfield-Jackson led all U.S. airports in the number of firearms recovered at security checkpoints in the first nine months of the year. TSA officials have issued warnings about the increased number of unauthorized weapons.

“The number of firearms that our TSA officers are stopping at airport checkpoints is alarming,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement last month.

Atlanta police issued warrants for Wells’ arrest on charges of carrying a concealed weapon at a commercial airport, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, discharge of a firearm and reckless conduct, Maj. Reginald Moorman with the Atlanta Police Department’s airport precinct announced at a news conference Saturday evening at Hartsfield-Jackson.

The incident also shows how the slightest lapse in airport security can have ripple effects in terms of flight delays and cancellations.

About 26% of flights departing Hartsfield-Jackson on Saturday were delayed and 23% of flights arriving were delayed, according to aviation tracker FlightAware. A total of 12 flights in Atlanta were canceled.

Those delays come ahead of the busiest travel periods of the year. Some U.S. airlines predict that this year’s Thanksgiving season could be the busiest time for air travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The TSA predicted that about 2 million people per day will fly between Nov. 19 through Nov. 28. Combined air and road traffic this Thanksgiving season is expected to be about 13% higher than last year, according to AAA.

Traffic backs up at the North Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Sunday, November 21, 2021.        STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Delta will offer a travel waiver to travelers affected by Saturday’s delays.

The Atlanta airport firearm discharge led the Federal Aviation Administration to institute a ground stop halting flights due to depart for Atlanta on Saturday between 1:38 p.m. and 2:14 p.m.

Delta requested a ground stop starting at 5:28 p.m., according to the FAA. A brief ground stop was followed by a ground delay as Delta worked to manage gate space, with flights delayed due to the incident.

Passengers evacuated Concourse T after the gun discharge. Those passengers were screened again for security on returning to the terminal.

Delta, the dominant airline in Atlanta, said almost all of its customers retrieved bags Saturday, and that eight customers’ bags remained unclaimed at 7 p.m.