Experts: Atlanta blackout a lesson for other airports

Airports officials across the country say their electrical systems are reliable despite problems that led to an 11-hour blackout at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Aviation experts aren't so sure. They say Atlanta's massive blackout shows airports are vulnerable to accidental or intentional failures of critical infrastructure. And the chaos that resulted here suggests an even more disturbing lack of preparation for how to handle passenger safety after something goes wrong.

“I know every other airport is thinking about it right now,” said Sheldon Jacobson, an aviation security expert at the University of Illinois. “Hartsfield-Jackson has done a great service to our country. Every airport is going to do a root-cause analysis and ask, ‘if this happened, what would happen here?’”

It probably didn't feel like a public service to some 35,000 people stranded when the lights went out at Hartsfield-Jackson last Sunday. Passengers described a chaotic scene as they fumbled around in the dark and heard next to nothing about what was going on from airline and airport employees.

Georgia Power officials say the blackout stemmed from a fire in an underground electrical facility that disabled both the primary and backup electrical systems. An airport backup generator also failed to keep the power on in one concourse.

The Atlanta Fire Department has concluded its preliminary investigation into the incident and found no evidence of foul play. Utility officials say a full investigation could take weeks.

“At this time, we are focused on completing a safe and thorough investigation,” Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Once that is completed, we will work closely with Hartsfield-Jackson to put the best, most effective processes and improvements in place to ensure this cannot happen again.”

In a written statement, General Manager Roosevelt Council Jr. said the airport also is committed to avoiding a repeat of the blackout. But - like Georgia Power - he offered no specifics about what will change.

“In the coming days and weeks we will closely review what happened and determine what needs improvement,” Council said

Better preparation needed

The blackout led airlines to cancel hundreds of flights in and out of Atlanta on Sunday and Monday, causing hassles at Hartsfield and at other airports. It also led airports to examine their own power supplies.

Lauren Huffman, a spokesman for Chicago’s airports, said they are trying to learn from what happened in Atlanta and to “understand what, if any, additional steps can be taken to enhance our systems in Chicago.” But she said the city is “fully prepared to address a situation like this if one were to occur at O’Hare or Midway International Airport.”

Airports in Charlotte, Dallas, Denver and Washington, D.C., also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they’re confident in their power systems.

“Our airports [Reagan National and Dulles International] have redundant power feeds, as well as backup generators on airport property to supply critical systems,” said Rob Yingling of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Of course, Hartsfield-Jackson also has a redundant electrical system and backup generators. And the airports offered few specifics to show their systems are better than Atlanta’s.

Jacobson said the Atlanta fire is a heads up to terrorists as well as airport officials that electrical systems can be completely disabled if backup systems are too close to the primary ones.

“Every airport should be looking at their power systems and saying, ‘do we have sufficient redundancy in our system?’ ” Jacobson said.

Hartsfield-Jackson is under intense pressure to correct any deficiencies. Delta Air Lines may seek tens of millions of dollars in compensation because of the blackout. And the Georgia Public Service Commission has demanded answers to detailed questions about the incident.

But electrical systems are just the beginning of airports’ vulnerability, according to Colorado aviation consultant Mike Boyd. He’s more concerned about how Atlanta handled passengers after the power went out.

“Infrastructure will fail, no matter what you do. Infrastructure can be made to fail,” he said. “The issue is, what do we do when it does fail?”

Judging from last Sunday, Boyd doesn’t think Atlanta was prepared. And he doubts other airports are, either.

Airport officials dispute that.

In a statement to the AJC, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport said it has an evacuation plan that covers “both a spontaneous and deliberate evacuation of the terminal.” It said the airport and first responders would implement that plan in the event of a catastrophic power loss.

Denver International Airport said it’s prepared.

“Our planning is what we call ‘all hazards,’ so we don’t have a specific plan for a power outage evacuation,” said spokesman Heath Montgomery. “But we do have evacuation plans that would cover that issue if we felt it needed to be activated for safety.”

Until last weekend, Hartsfield-Jackson officials might have offered similar assurances. But this week, Council was left to apologize for the way it handled the blackout.

“As part of our airport emergency plan, we train constantly for incidents and emergency,” he said.

“We have a power outage plan in place to expand and contract with other emergency contingency plans as needed,” he said. “These plans were implemented and followed, but we acknowledge that we could have done better.”


The AJC's David Wickert keeps you updated on the latest in what's happening with transportation in metro Atlanta and Georgia. You'll find more on, including these stories:

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