National News

Atlanta airport's power returns, and with it frustration

Posted December 18, 2017 5:47 p.m. EST
Updated December 18, 2017 7:02 p.m. EST

— The lights were back on at the world’s busiest airport Monday, and after Sunday’s blackout, it was busier than usual — a lot busier. Hundreds of passengers whose flights were canceled Sunday were jammed into lines that snaked toward distant ticket counters.

The predominant feelings were resignation, frustration and anger. At the south terminal, a Delta employee with a chipper Australian accent pushed around a cart offering free Krispy Kreme doughnuts and bottled water.

And while most passengers kept their game faces on, it seemed there was not enough sugar and lard in the world to assuage the overall sense of dislocation and annoyance.

Joe Britton, 56, was waiting in a United Airlines check-in line with his family. They had come to Atlanta for a quick trip, the highlight of which was dinner with the former basketball star and TV personality Charles Barkley. They came to the airport at 2:30 p.m. in advance of a 6:40 p.m. Delta Air Lines flight back home to California. They were dropped off at an outdoor baggage check area, but never really got much farther.

“It was pitch black inside,” Britton said.

“We came in here for help, but there was no one who could help us,” said Britton’s wife, Michelle, 57. “There wasn’t a single Delta employee who knew what was going on. They could have at least used a megaphone to say, ‘This is what’s happening.'”

Georgia Power, the utility that services the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said electricity for “all essential airport activities” had been restored just before midnight, allowing everything from baggage carousels to bookstore cash registers to switch back on.

On Monday, Michelle Britton and members of her family were hoping to catch a morning flight, but they feared that the long check-in line, plus the wait at the security checkpoint, would move too slow. Joe Britton said they might just drive to Chattanooga, Tennessee, about two hours away, if Plan A faltered.

Although airlines were struggling to rebook passengers, they said they expected ordinary flight operations to return throughout Monday.

Most crucially, Delta, which has its headquarters in Atlanta and controls dozens of gates here, said it expected its normal flight schedule to resume Monday afternoon. But the airline, which scrapped about 1,000 of its planned Sunday flights, still canceled about 300 flights to give its Atlanta “operation an opportunity to more quickly return to normal.”

Major airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United, waived certain fees or charges for passengers with imminent travel to, from or through Atlanta.

Speaking at the airport, a regional economic engine that hosts about 275,000 passengers a day, city officials repeatedly apologized for the outage that happened at about 1 p.m. on Sunday and left bustling corridors largely lit by the glow of iPhones.

Georgia Power said it believed that equipment in an underground facility had failed and caught fire, damaging cables and shutting down both electricity and a backup system. Fumes and smoke, the company said, exacerbated Sunday’s episode by keeping repair workers at bay.

“Georgia Power has many redundant system and sources of power in place to ensure reliability for the airport and its millions of travelers — power outages affecting the airport are very rare,” the company said in a statement. “The company will continue to actively work with the airport to address any remaining impacts in nonessential areas of the airport, determine the cause of today’s incident and prevent future occurrences.”

Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta said late Sunday that there was “no evidence to suggest that the fire was caused deliberately.” The chief executive of Georgia Power, Paul Bowers, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that he expected the investigation would last throughout the week.

But the immediate fallout was immense. Passengers from Paris to Portland, Oregon, had their trips canceled. Some flights were diverted — airports serving Cincinnati and New York City were among those that took in Atlanta-bound planes — and hotels near Hartsfield-Jackson were crammed. Atlanta officials opened the Georgia International Convention Center as a shelter, but many passengers sought accommodations elsewhere.

On Monday, Pat Kahn, 63, was waiting to find out where her bag was — a bag that was checked in on Sunday and was supposed to go, along with her, to Boston. Now, she figured, it was suspended in some mysterious limbo state. She had already missed a big business meeting in Boston — “it’s going on right now,” she said — and figured that retrieving the bag would take up her entire day.

Kahn had arrived at the airport at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, just before Hartsfield-Jackson went dark.

Everything conked out as her carry-on bags were on the conveyor belt rolling toward the TSA agents. She waited, she said, in the dark until 7 p.m., because she and other travelers kept being told that the power would come on and things would be resolved shortly.

“It was ridiculous, because nobody knew what was going on and they wouldn’t give us any information,” she said.

As she stood in line, she was making good progress on a mystery novel called “The Body In The Casket.” And when the lady with the doughnuts rolled by, she declined.