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Hartsfield-Jackson Power Outage Disrupts Thousands, Costs Millions in Damage

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A seemingly normal Sunday afternoon at the world’s busiest airport changed when suddenly the lights went out—leaving thousands of travelers in disarray and confusion. On Dec. 17, a power outage at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport left over 20,000 travelers stranded for 11 hours and resulted in a loss of over 50 million in cancelled flights.

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Passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson were trapped inside airport terminals and planes on the tarmac for hours, while airport staff handed out water and pretzels. Yet the atmosphere was humid, crowded, and tense: water fountains stopped functioning, bathrooms would not flush, and many travelers did not have any source for food as concessions were closed. Around many corners and vents, smoke escaped. People, used phone flashlights to light their paths. Officials handed out rolls of toilet paper, but even then many travelers did not risk losing their spot in whatever line they were in as they thought the power could come back any minute. By 3 pm, major airlines started cancelling flights at the airport.

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Meanwhile, for the first few hours, travelers looked for answers as to the scope of the outage and when service would resume. But the officials standing by were just as confused as the travelers, as no information about the cause of the outage or about its scope was provided.

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By 7 pm, all flights at the airport were cancelled, and Georgia Power had officially commented on the issue, saying that power would be restored by midnight. Shortly before midnight, Georgia Power restored power to the airport, and the frenzy of travelers were finally able to resume their itineraries.

Commenting on city’s lack of communication the first few hours, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said, “we could always communicate better and more effectively. But I did believe that it would be highly frustrating to hold a press event where we communicated nothing. Everyone knew that we had a fire that occurred, but we could not even know when we could get the airport up and operational.”

By 10:30, the airport was back at 90 percent normal functioning and lines sizes were back to the same as any other day.

But even after the power was returned, the outage still affected travelers with flights Monday morning. Travelers found terminals filled with passengers and zig-zagged lines so long that they reached the baggage claim area. Flights took off without many passengers, as they could not reach their gates on time, and airline officials offered to change flights.

As the world’s business airport, the outage affected millions across the nation. Incoming flights to Atlanta were prevented from taking off and inbound flights were diverted. Especially many people were traveling because it was right before Christmas, the height of the holiday season, when many are traveling home or to taking trips to other places. An estimated 30,000 people were affected by the power outage. In addition, the disruption led to 1,180 flight cancellations to and from the airport Sunday, also creating problems at other airports. As a result, many had to delay homecomings and cancel vacations, dampening collective holiday spirit.

But how exactly did the outage occur and how did the world’s busiest airport’s systems fail during the height of the holiday season, the busiest time of all?

At 7 am on Sunday, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers said, “we’re going through a process of investigating exactly what happened.”

In addition, Bowers said that there was a failure in the switchgear that caused the fire. Officials do not know if the fire was set intentionally. The fire occurred in a tunnel that runs along the path of the underground Plane Train tunnel near Concourse E. The intensity of the fire prevented Georgia Power crews from immediately accessing the tunnels to restore power.

“The issue for us is to ensure the reliability is here and that it doesn’t happen again and to ensure that our network is resilient enough to withstand any kind of fire,” said Bowers.

On Monday afternoon, Reed proposed a series of fixes at the airport that would prevent another electrical fire that knocked out power like the one Sunday night. Reed said the airport would invest in “more aggressive portable lighting capability” to large parts of the airport.



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Hartsfield-Jackson Power Outage Disrupts Thousands, Costs Millions in Damage