Zero communication

When the World's busiest airport goes quiet

Airport had no plan for total power outage

His family missed their flight for a Hawaiian vacation because of Sunday’s Atlanta airport nightmare. So the exasperated dad hammered out a list of questions and emailed them to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — questions that speak to the excruciating ordeal suffered by tens of thousands of travelers, and how the city left them in the dark, literally and figuratively.

Why leave planes stranded on the tarmac? Why weren’t the water fountains working? Why wasn’t anyone at the airport communicating to the stranded passengers?

“We deserved to know the truth,” Erik Swanson of Fulton County wrote.

After more than 24 hours without answers — with the message tightly controlled by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — the AJC learned late Monday that the world’s busiest air hub had no plan to cope with an airport-wide power outage.

While the airport had conducted drills for partial outages, making plans to shuffle operations between terminals, it made zero preparations for the entire facility to go dark.

“This was like a one in a million chance,” said airport Deputy General Manager Balram Bheodari, adding that a full power outage has never happened in his 17 years working at Hartsfield-Jackson.

And the AJC learned that the breakdown in communicating with passengers stuck in Atlanta and held up in airports worldwide can be chalked up to the Reed administration's laser focus on accuracy.

Rather than inform 35,000 stranded passengers that the outage was connected to a fire in an airport substation, city officials opted to keep travelers out of the loop until they had ironclad confirmation.

By then, the fire was completely out.

The city, Georgia Power and airline representatives finally acknowledged that a blaze may have taken place about 6:30 p.m. Sunday. That was five and a half hours after firefighters had first arrived at the scene.

By then, passengers had spent hours coping with darkened terminals, unexplained smoke and fumes, cancelled flights, and a shortage of food.

Reed acknowledged that communications could have been better and apologized for that, but he defended his decision to hold back information.

“What some people mistook as us not communicating had to do with us making critical decisions about what we could share and what we could not,” he said Monday afternoon.

“Last night, we made the decision that we were going to be right,” he added.

Communication breakdown

For ticket-holders, that decision led to a breakdown on par with Snowjam ‘14, except in an airport, and with no lights.

Stranded passengers decried that there weren’t more employees available to assist elderly and disabled passengers who were caught up in a mass exodus of passengers. They wondered how long the outage would last and whether they should leave.

Among the airport’s challenges: It had no electricity to power its public announcement system, and only hundreds of employees to manage 35,000 stranded people. The airport’s backup generators can power only one elevator per concourse. The generators in concourses D and E failed shortly after switching on, Bheodari said.

“It takes an army to communicate,” the deputy general manager said, “and not everyone receives communications.”

The ticket counters were swamped with travelers in the North terminal on Monday after a massive power outage brought operations to halt on Sunday. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
The ticket counters were swamped with travelers in the North terminal on Monday after a massive power outage brought operations to halt on Sunday. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The airport about 1:30 posted on Twitter that a power outage was affecting several areas, and that additional updates would come. It wasn’t until 4 that the airport issued an additional statement, but it didn’t mention the fire. At 7, the airport mentioned the fire in a news release. It was after 8:30 that the airport advised passengers to consider taking a MARTA train to downtown or midtown for hotels. It was after midnight before food and water were delivered to passengers.

Jacqueline Yaft, a consultant with Ross & Baruzzini who formerly served as a top safety official for Los Angeles World Airports, said there is merit to the argument that it’s better to say nothing than put out incorrect statements.

Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers talks Atlanta airport outage on "Good Morning America." (Video by Ben Brasch/AJC STAFF)

But people still want information — any information. The airport should at least describe the problem’s impact, say that management is aware of the impact, and tell travelers some steps the airport is taking toward customer service, she said.

“A lack of communication, that’s where the chaos, that where the assumptions start being made, where miscommunications start happening, and the impact becomes much bigger,” Yaft said.

Preparation is mandatory

FAA rules require airports that handle scheduled commercial passenger flights to create an emergency plan that covers events such as structural fires and specifies which agencies handle crowd control. In order to get federal grant funding, airports must also follow federal rules on emergency management that allow coordination between multiple agencies.

“A lot of these plans are exercised in advance. You’d know exactly who to call and what to call and what to say. These protocols are established and practiced,” said John Kinney, director of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport in Colorado, who serves as the international emergency management committee chairman for the American Association of Airport Executives.

» RELATED: How the airport debacle unfolded

An Atlanta airport spokesman said he could not provide a copy of its Federal Aviation Administration-required emergency plan because it contains sensitive security information that cannot be released to the public.

According to preliminary information, airport officials followed that plan, the FAA said in a written statement, but the federal agency will continue to assess the airport’s response.

The federal agency issues pages of guidance on how to create the required emergency plan, but airports have flexibility on what their plans include. And for years, aviation safety authorities have been so focused on plane crashes and terrorism that there has been little focus on potential emergencies within terminals.

“You don’t expect to lose power at the world’s busiest airport. This is beyond a case what they would normally encounter,” said John Cox, CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting firm.

Signs of fire

A little after 1 p.m., senior airport management decided to mobilize its first response force and activate its emergency operations center.

Officials had received a fire signal from tunnel sensors — about simultaneously with the power going out — but smoke had billowed into more than one concourse, which made it difficult to pinpoint the source and confirm that there was a fire.

Travelers pass under the flight board showing cancellations in the North terminal on Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport the day after a massive power outage brought operations to halt. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Travelers pass under the flight board showing cancellations in the North terminal on Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport the day after a massive power outage brought operations to halt. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Airport management and other responders decided to keep morning shift workers on duty, as the evening shift came on, to beef up personnel. But staffers were quickly swamped by a growing crowd of furious passengers.

And meanwhile, until the FAA called for a ground stop at 3:28 p.m., planes kept landing.

“We knew that we had emergency power, so we knew that no one was going to be in danger,” Bheodari said. “The bigger question at hand was we had 100 planes sitting on the tarmac. How are we going to get people off those aircraft?”

The airport’s challenges were of little matter to travelers such as Lorenzo Browne.

“I don’t know why they don’t get one of those giant-sized generators out here and hook it up,” said Browne, 55, a 22-year veteran trying to get back home to central Texas. “I was in the military. I’ve seen them do it.”

Browne sat in a wheelchair outside the darkened baggage claim area, waiting for a family friend who is also an Atlanta resident to come for himself and his wife to put them up for the night.

Worse than the lack of effective action was the lack of accurate information, Browne said. The veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan uses a wheelchair, but he was obliged to hoist himself up and down the frozen escalator steps to get from the gate to the terminal. That’s not easy, he said, with a titanium knee.

Airline consultant Mike Boyd said airports like Atlanta have to anticipate every possible problem. "It's more than getting people out of terminals. It's, 'Where do you move them? How do you move them?'

“This was a dangerous situation,” Boyd said. “You had no power in the nation’s No. 1 passenger airport.”

Staff writers David Wickert and Bo Emerson contributed to this story.