Atlanta airport power outage has us looking for better backup

Posted December 18, 2017 1:57 p.m. EST

ATLANTA -- Um, really?

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is one of the most important links in the nation's commercial air system.

It's the world's busiest airport and the biggest economic development gem for Atlanta and the entire state of Georgia. Officials are in the midst of trying to woo Amazon to build a second headquarters here with 50,000 jobs, and a chunk of the hopes for that effort are tied to offering access to an airport that handles more than any other on Earth.

So how is it we can't keep the lights on there?

Accidents happen, and we are still trying to understand this one. But it's stunning, humiliating and concerning that the power stayed out for hours without emergency backups keeping Atlanta's pride and joy lit and at least semi-functioning. Social media was abuzz with passengers cooped up in the dark and jets stuck on the tarmacs. Information on the cause of the issue was scant for hours.

This is about more than just passenger inconvenience or even scrambling crucial business plans and family gatherings in the holiday season.

In an era in which we're always on edge about terrorism, concourses shouldn't be going dark when they are stuffed with passengers.

How are we supposed to keep an airport safe if we can't keep it lit?

"Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today," was part of the tweet from former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "I am stuck on (at)delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it. But there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE!"

A big outage last year

We've had problems with backup power before.

It was only in August of last year that the Atlanta airport's dominant carrier, Delta Air Lines, had massive flight cancellations nationwide after backup power failed to kick in for about 300 of the airline's 7,000 servers. They hadn't been properly connected. Yikes!

We thought that was shocking at the time. The power company wasn't to blame for that one. It was Delta that deserved the ire of passengers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that when "a power control module at Delta's technology command center failed and caught fire, it caused a surge to a Georgia Power transformer and a loss of power."

"Delta's responsible for this, " Delta's Ed Bastian said at the time, adding, "The buck stops with me. I'm the CEO."

Other airlines have had system outages, too.

This time around, as was the case with Delta's earlier incident, there was little accurate information available to the public at the airport or heading that way.

Waiting for answers

We don't yet have a complete assessment of what happened and why.

But on Sunday night, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said a fire in Georgia Power's underground system at the airport not only knocked out power, but damaged a switch connecting to a redundant system.

Georgia Power said the cause of the fire is unknown, and that the event affected underground equipment as well as substations serving the airport.

Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers, who apologized for the "inconvenience," was quoted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday as saying: "Our investigation is going through the process of what do we do to ensure we have the redundancy going back at the airport, because right now we are a single source feed."

"Single" sounds like a problem.

It also seems to weaken what the company stated about backups in a Sunday press release: "Georgia Power has many redundant systems in place to ensure reliability for the Airport and its millions of travelers -- power outages affecting the Airport are very rare."

Unfortunately, they aren't rare enough.

We'll deserve a lot more clarity on what happened in the days ahead.

We can't afford to get this one wrong again.

Matt Kempner writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: mkempner(at)ajc.com.

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