A massive power outage at the world’s busiest airport brought everything to a screeching halt Sunday afternoon, leaving planes and passengers stranded for hours. By nightfall, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was still dark, forcing airlines to cancel more than 1,100 flights and creating a logistical nightmare during the already-busy holiday travel season.
Late Sunday, both Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Power said the cause of the outage was a fire that damaged an underground electrical facility, along with substations serving the airport and the backup system. But what sparked that fire remained under investigation. Though no injuries were reported, the lack of information during the first few hours led to a chaotic scene both inside and outside the airport.
“There was nobody there to tell you what to do,” a stranded passenger, Michael Rances, said.
That was because Georgia Power crews and firefighters were still assessing the damage, Reed said, and airport leaders did not want to release inaccurate information to the public.
How long it will take airlines to recover from the shutdown at Hartsfield-Jackson appears uncertain. Delta Air Lines said it was forced to cancel 300 flights scheduled for Monday, typically the busiest day for business travelers.
Shortly before 1 p.m., Georgia Power workers first noticed the problem, and once the fire was reported, fire crews arrived at the airport within minutes, Reed said at an evening press conference. Due to the hazardous fumes, it took up to two hours for firefighters to give power crews access the underground tunnels, Reed said.
Hours after the outage began, the scene was the same: a swirling mass of people in an aimless pattern trying to get cellphone signals in a darkening airport.
Rances’s mother-in-law, Malou Cadavillo, and her 16-month-old granddaughter sat in the dark at Hartsfield-Jackson on a motionless luggage carousel, waiting. Her grandchild’s car seat looked like it would never arrive. Her family’s journey from the gate where they arrived in the afternoon to the terminal was a scary odyssey. They walked through the dark corridor between concourses, guided by the lights of other people’s cellphones, as smoke poured in from some unknown source.
Her grandsons, 7 and 11, were uneasy. “I hope there’s no monsters down here,” said one.
Nearby a group of Delta pilots stood conferring. The Federal Aviation Administration was forced to issue a ground stop for all flights into Atlanta and many flights were diverted to other airports.
“This is gonna take hours,” said one pilot. “Days,” said another.
Confusion, chaos during outage
Power was expected to be returned to the airport by midnight, according to social media posts by the airport and Georgia Power. Shortly before 8 p.m., electricity returned to Concourse F, and about two hours later, all passengers and crew members were safely off all planes, Reed said.
Just before midnight, power was restored to all of the airport. But it was not known how long it would take airlines to recover. Those stuck hours at the airport — including in planes on tarmacs — described the confusion the outage caused.
Passenger Norman Radow, unable to fly into Atlanta, was shocked by an announcement he heard over a speaker while he waited at the Johnson City, Tenn., airport.
“I recommend you re-book on Tuesday as it will take days for us to get out of this mess,” the announcer said, according to Radow.
Rick Crotts, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, was aboard Flight 3392 that arrived at the airport at 1:31 p.m. But he and the other passengers sat on the plane more than two hours before personnel brought a ladder to the tarmac. Crotts was told he’d have to retrieve his luggage at a later time.
In Concourse D, Olivia Dorfman said smoke filled the area in Concourse D when the power went out.
“Maybe 10 minutes later 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 in a phone interview.
Near the D9A gate, airport workers tried to herd passengers away from the smoky areas.
“This has been very bizarre,” she said. “No one seems to know what they’re doing.”
Traffic jam outside the airport
Michelle Andrews from Covington, waited in a wheelchair for hours in the darkened Concourse C. She had just buried her father in Michigan over the weekend and had flown back home to metro Atlanta.
“I just want to go home,” she said. “I just want to go home.“
Andrews said her daughter was on the way to pick her up. but was not able to get in the airport. Apparently, she ran out of gas circling the airport while trying to gain entrance.
Nearby Camp Creek Parkway was shut down and Atlanta police asked people to avoid the airport if possible. For those inside the airport, that meant waiting in line with hundreds of others for a taxi or taking MARTA, which was not affected by the power outage.
But, getting a MARTA pass also took time. One MARTA employee simply opened the gate to let passengers board — pass or not.
“All right, everybody!” the MARTA worker told the crowd.
By late Sunday, crowds were thinning at the airport as an hours-long ordeal for many ended for the day.
How did this happen?
“We have failed to invest in our infrastructure for decades. And it is going to catch up with us and cost lives,” said James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and an expert in crisis management and transportation safety. “I’m extremely concerned particularly about the electric grid. We were put on notice on those problems after 9/11 and we have invested all over the world, but not in our own infrastructure and it’s very unfortunate. … These things need to get attention because they aren’t going to get less frequent, only more.”
Though it was the first known power outage to affect all of Atlanta’s airport, many air travelers were left wondering why there wasn’t a plan in place to prepare for the scenario.
“Certainly with an airport the size of Hartsfield, there should be backups for situations like this,” Hall said. “We now know the type of society we live in now, we have to plan for worst-case scenarios, and at the Atlanta airport, that covers a whole range.”
But since the fire impacted the backup power system, it took several hours to begin restoring power, Reed said Sunday night.
“We do have a redundant system, but it was impacted by the intensity of the fire,” he said.
In addition to Atlanta police officers who arrived at the airport to assist with crowd control and traffic, Clayton County officers also were assisting, Reed said. Gov. Nathan Deal also sent 24 state troopers to the airport.
Help from Santa
Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A was serving meals to weary, hungry travelers late Sunday, Reed said. And Santa Claus also helped brighten spirits.
Chester Cook, a white-bearded, white-haired volunteer wearing a Santa hat and a red shirt, offered the one thing that travelers at the airport wanted more than food, and that was information.
Which way to the taxi stand? Are there shuttles to nearby hotels? Is MARTA still running? Cook sorted out many problems. The Santa look-alike also helped calm rattled nerves. You know things will turn out OK if Father Christmas is close at hand.
“People can spend the night at the airport, but I feel for the ones with babies,” he said, gesturing to a mother with a child in her arms. There are many hotels nearby, but also many seeking rooms. “There may be the problem that there’s no room in the inn,” he said, “sort of like what happened once before with Mary and Joseph.”
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— Staff writers Rick Crotts, David Wickert, Tia Mitchell and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this article.