Botched response turns airport outage into city embarrassment

Some passengers decided to leave the concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as a power outage dragged on for hours and into the evening. (Photo by Rick Crotts / AJC)

Some passengers decided to leave the concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as a power outage dragged on for hours and into the evening. (Photo by Rick Crotts / AJC)

One thing was clear from the start: Something went terribly wrong.

Firefighters arrived beneath Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Sunday at 1:04 p.m. to find black smoke and toxic fumes choking a utility tunnel as long as 4,000 feet. They tried to peer inside, but it was impenetrable.

“In my 28 years, I’ve never seen a fire this intense down in a tunnel area,” Atlanta Fire Department First Deputy Chief Randall Slaughter said. “Many American firefighters have been killed in this exact sort of situation.”

Front-line personnel sprang into action as the entire airport lost power. Yet, top decision-makers waited to make crucial calls, in hopes, officials said, that Georgia Power would tell them that an end to the airportwide power outage was near. That word didn't come for hours, and the world's busiest airport plunged into confusion and frustration.

Security measures required emergency personnel to be escorted past checkpoints rather than rushing to concourses on their own to help. An airport network of cell phone signal-boosting antennae failed without power. With few radios to go around, some airport and airline personnel struggled to get basic information, throwing the emergency response within the concourses into disorder. Offers of help went unanswered and suggestions unused.

Meanwhile, passengers kept arriving for their flights. Those already in the terminal didn’t know why the power was out, if they should leave or stay, the best way to exit, or how to get food and water. In some areas, passengers saw smoke. It was dark before the city made its first detailed communication.

The power outage could have been just another holiday headache. But the bungled response by the city and airport management could have put thousands of passengers at risk. It made Atlanta into a national embarrassment, dredging up memories of 2014’s “SnowJam.”

This time, however, travelers felt the pain all over the world as the busiest air hub shut down flights and cut off connections.

Mayor Kasim Reed, airport General Manager Roosevelt Council, and Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers have been publicly apologizing all week. Delta CEO Ed Bastian wants millions of dollars in compensation, and the Georgia Public Service Commission, which oversees Georgia Power, is demanding answers.

Despite the drumbeat of apologies, days later, city, airport, power company and other leaders have yet to answer basic questions about who, exactly, was in charge, what the response plan was and why the decision was made to withhold information about the fire until hours after it was extinguished.

“Incidents are managed under a unified command and decision-making model,” a statement emailed by Reed’s spokeswoman Jenna Garland said.

Asked to give more details, Garland wrote back, “We’ve responded to your questions.”

Slaughter said that no one had sole authority.

After the AJC reported early last week that the airport had not planned for a total power outage – never conducting drills on that scenario – airport officials insisted they have such a plan. But they gave no details. They said that for security reasons, they couldn't release anything except the chapter title, which described dealing with "large" electrical outages. Later, a spokesman said the plan isn't in airport managers' possession, but the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corp., a private airline cooperative that maintains the terminal and concourses, has it.

Airport and city spokespersons emphasized that they deserved some credit for getting power up in 11 hours, without any deaths or serious injuries.

But witnesses and long-time city hall observers have come to their own conclusions.

“Obviously, if there were plans, they weren’t being executed. Or there were no plans and people were just sort of winging it and doing the best they can,” said Felicia Moore, incoming City Council president and a member of the council committee that oversees the airport. “It didn’t appear, based on what I’ve heard from people who were at the airport, that there was any organized effort.”

Communication breakdown

By 1:30 p.m., a massive emergency fire response was underway. A second alarm summoned more firefighters from downtown. A page to Georgia Mutual Aid brought in reinforcements from across the region.

Slaughter, AFD’s second in command and head of operations, took over from the airport’s fire chief as head of the incident command center. Emergency responders alerted other agencies to a possible evacuation, leaders of those agencies said — but those plans were quickly dropped when incident commanders realized that the flames did not threaten passengers and terrorism was unlikely.

But inside the airport terminals and concourses, many front-line personnel knew little of this. With the main PA system down, bullhorns and flashlights scarce, and not enough radios to go around, they were left to improvise as a smoky haze crept towards some gates.

Cell phone service became scarce after the power blinked off.

AT&T cell towers lost power until they were hooked up to generators, said Reese McCranie, director of policy and communications at the airport. A special network of antennas and other equipment that boosts cell signals cut off, too. It has no power backup because they are not considered part of crucial life safety systems such as defibrillators, fire alarms, sprinkler systems and emergency lights, he said.

“For the most part, cell towers were working,” McCranie said.

He insisted that no airport personnel were ever out of communication range.

Yet to witnesses, it was clear that some workers inside the concourses weren’t in the loop. Some employees stood around, waiting for direction. Others shared radios. Still others sent runners to carry messages across two terminals, 207 gates, underground passageways and seven concourses that make up the 6.8 million-square-foot complex, witnesses said.

Front-line personnel struggled to get crucial information. McCranie said workers knew emergency generators for two concourses failed, but received conflicting information on which ones were down. Workers who hoped to help disabled and elderly travellers to the exits had to figure out on their own which elevators and other systems remained online, witnesses said.

No one seemed to be in charge, said John Eaves, who served as Fulton County Commission chairman for more than a decade and was a candidate for mayor this year. He spent last Sunday in the darkened international terminal waiting for a 6 p.m. flight to Germany. He watched police officers occasionally walk through, saying nothing. TSA officers stood around waiting. Concessionaires presided over shuttered stands. In the area where Eaves was, the only light came through the windows, where people could see planes sitting idle, he said.

Gate agents seemed to have no more information than passengers. Eaves said the only information given to people waiting in the international terminal came from a Delta agent, who screamed that all domestic flights had been canceled, and a British Airways agent announcing a canceled flight to London. He only found out his flight had been canceled by reaching out to a contact at Delta.

“It was just abject failure,” he said.

Hesitation at the top

The confusion left passengers stuck in airport concourses, escalators and the plane train with little guidance. Many others were stuck on planes parked on the tarmac, trapped for hours.

Additional police arrived at the airport, but without airport badges, they had to be escorted through security by other officers to get beyond the main terminals, McCranie and other sources said.

Firefighters ushered passengers to the ends of the concourses and blocked them from leaving, giving them little information on why. Passengers could still reach 911 dispatchers. But the airport, city and Georgia Power relied on Twitter and Facebook to send out information to the public, and spotty cellular service meant that many passengers never received it. The posts didn’t acknowledge the fire until four hours after it was contained.

Meanwhile, a team of incident commanders had gathered at the airport’s emergency command center to decide the fates of 35,000 passengers. Alongside veteran police, fire, and aviation officials was Roosevelt Council, who came to the airport from a career in finance and was put in charge after Reed axed his predecessor, Miguel Southwell. The airport’s finance director was also on hand, as was the city’s chief operating officer.

Reed headed for the airport at 5:30 p.m., his spokeswoman said.

Ordinarily, managing an airport outage is straightforward. Brief, partial outages take place frequently at Hartsfield-Jackson. Airport workers keep passengers inside the terminals and concourses and avoid cancellations by shuffling operations between gates until power returns. Mass cancellations can disrupt air travel across the nation and cost airlines tens of millions of dollars.

On Sunday, the fire, fumes and heat added hours to the time needed to assess the damage, and the busy travel season increased the financial stakes, making the decision more complex.

“If you shut down the airport and evacuate the airport and cancel all the flights at the airport, then if the power had come back on in a matter of hours, what you’d have to do is re-book, re-ticket, re-screen tens of thousands of passengers, adding more delays,” McCranie said.

Missed opportunities

Offers of assistance and outside suggestions fell on deaf ears.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeffrey Turner told the airport’s public affairs director by mid-afternoon that he was ready to send any help they needed. Turner said the county could have sent 25 to 30 police officers and sheriff’s deputies, who could help with crowd control or walk the airport corridors checking on stranded travelers.

No one ever called him back, Turner said.

“I can’t sit here and second guess what the management at the airport or the mayor’s office, what their game plan was,” he said.

Incoming council president Moore learned in a text message about the chaos and did a conference call with upset passengers. But when Moore tried about 3 p.m. to call Roosevelt Council, his assistant told her that everyone was in a “closed-door meeting.” Moore suggested a public announcement telling passengers to stop coming to the airport so that crowds and traffic would be easier to manage, but she said it didn’t happen.

Despite all that unfolded, the airport maintains that it did have a plan for a total blackout. “Our Airport Emergency Plan addresses all hazards at the airport and, following industry standards, is designed to expand and contract as necessary,” the airport said in a written statement.

It’s just that no two incidents unfold the same way, McCranie said.

“Our plans were followed, yes. Could we have done better in executing those plans? Yes. And we apologize for that,” he said. “We apologize for the lack of sufficient communication.”

Staff writer Joshua Sharpe contributed to this report.