Atlanta Airport Returns To Normalcy After Crippling Power Outage

Dec 18, 2017

Operations are getting back to normal at the world's busiest airport after a massive power outage Sunday completely shut down Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Georgia Power officials say a fire in a substation below the airport knocked out both the main power and the backup power for several hours on Sunday.

GPB's Bradley George has been following this story and he joined me in the studio.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: I think the question on everybody's mind right now is “What caused this disaster?”

BRADLEY GEORGE: Well we still don't know what caused it specifically. We do know that there was a fire in this substation and one of the tunnels underneath the airport.

That's what knocked out power. And a lot of people were asking “Well, why didn't the backup system kick in?” Well, that fire affected the backup as well.

BEVINGTON: Georgia Power's CEO Paul Bowers actually appeared on ABC this morning and he told "Good Morning America" that it's actually going to take some time to determine the exact play-by-play timeline of what happened.

Right now we're in, we have our investigators in the tunnel this morning. It will take the remainder of this week we will fix that cable this week and have all the services back to normal operations by the end of the week.”

BEVINGTON: Now Bradley, Bowers said in that interview that it's not fair to say that Georgia Power did not have a redundant power source. But things still went wrong. What happened to the backup?

GEORGE: Well think of it like if you have a spare key for your house or your car, and you kept that key on the same ring as the main key.

So that was the situation here. The backup system was adjacent to the main system.

The switch to kick in the system was actually where this fire happened, so they couldn't even turn on the backup system because they had a deal with the fire first.

BEVINGTON: What's next? How does the airport and Georgia Power go from here to make sure this never happens again?

GEORGE: Well there's going to be an investigation. And Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers also talked about some of the steps that they might take to make sure that the backup system is protected:

“What else can we do? Do we concrete encases those cables? Do we separate the cable in different areas or not? But that's a question that we'll have as we talk to the airport in the remainder of this week.”

BEVINGTON: Bradley, are there lingering questions about how the City of Atlanta, the airport and Georgia Power have handled this entire situation?

GEORGE: Well yeah, there are a lot of questions from people who are trapped in the airport or are trapped on the tarmac in airplanes for hours about why there wasn't clear communication or more prompt responses to the public about what happened.

Last night, Mayor Kasim Reed said that they wanted to go through and be sure of what was wrong before they communicated things to the public, because if they sent out incorrect information that would create even more confusion.

I think there's a lot of frustration from travelers today about why there wasn't clear communication and understanding of what happened, and also maybe why they didn't take some of the steps sooner, like getting people out of the airport or getting people out of these planes instead of having them stranded there for hours.

BEVINGTON: Finally, it is obviously holiday package delivery season. Are people's holiday presents interrupted, or are there going to be delays?

GEORGE: UPS and FedEx are saying so far, that's not been the case. You have to keep in mind Atlanta is the world's busiest passenger airport.

It doesn't see a whole lot of cargo traffic, though.

FedEx’s big cargo hub is in Memphis. UPS has a hub in Louisville.

So there is some cargo movement that comes out of Hartsfield-Jackson, but it's not a major shipping point the way those other airports are.