Atlanta airport mess: How does this happen?

The power is back on at the busiest airport in the world.But as passengers scramble to make rescheduled flight...

Posted: Dec 19, 2017 11:13 AM
Updated: Dec 19, 2017 11:13 AM

The power is back on at the busiest airport in the world.

But as passengers scramble to make rescheduled flights during the busy holiday season, the question remains: Why did Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport go dark for nearly 11 hours?

The short answer is that an electrical fire in a tunnel beneath the airport crippled both the main power system and its backup. Experts say the broader issue is that America's airports don't seem to be prepared for such events.

Georgia Power, the utility that provides Hartsfield-Jackson with electricity, said in a statement Monday that "a piece of Georgia Power switchgear located in an underground electrical facility could have failed and started a fire."

Because the fire was in a tunnel "adjacent" to the backup cables, the fail-safe system was knocked out, too, Georgia Power said.

Workers then had to wait between an hour and a half and two hours to enter the tunnel and start repairs due to safety concerns, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at a press conference on Sunday.

Related: Thousands trying to get out of Atlanta after lights went out at Hartsfield airport

"Because of the types of fumes that came through the tunnel as a result of the fire, we had to take some time before the team from Georgia Power could access the tunnels," Reed said.

Experts who study transportation infrastructure, however, expressed disbelief that such an incident could knock the Atlanta airport's power out for so long.

"[A] fire shouldn't paralyze the country's busiest airport for half the day. It may take a couple hours to bring alternative power to the airport, but if the airport infrastructure itself was undamaged, it shouldn't have been nearly as painful," said Joseph Schwieterman, a public policy professor at DePaul University who specializes in transportation and urban planning.

Georgia Power's investigation into exactly what happened will last the rest of the week, CEO Paul Bowers said Monday on "Good Morning America."

For air travel, it's been "death by a thousand cuts," Schwieterman said. From bad weather to computer issues to Sunday's power outage, airlines have been repeatedly hit with shutdowns, exposing a number of vulnerabilities in the process.

Severe thunderstorms in Atlanta in April seriously disrupted Delta's operations for days. British Airways had a "major IT system failure" in May that interrupted flight schedules worldwide. And in August 2016, Delta experienced a computer outage that downed critical systems for nearly five hours.

"Airport outages seem to be happening more and more, for a number of reasons, but planning for these outages is not prioritized," said Megan Ryerson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies airport infrastructure planning.. " ... It's something I think requires a lot of focus."

According to Ryerson, carriers and airports should put more energy into ensuring day-to-day operations are "as reliable and predictable as possible, rather than focusing on growth."

Since top U.S. airlines rely on certain cities as hubs, the ripple effect from some airports can be particularly severe. The primary hub for Delta is in Atlanta, while United's is in Chicago and American's is in Dallas.

Sunday's fire and subsequent power outage caused 1,180 flight cancellations to and from Hartsfield-Jackson airport that day alone. Hundreds more were announced on Monday.

"As a country, we're dependent on just a few critical airports. And when one of them goes out, it's devastating," Ryerson said.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1490496

Reported Deaths: 20500
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion2039162521
Lake1001941500
Allen923541011
Hamilton72207547
St. Joseph64053755
Elkhart48903625
Vanderburgh47506523
Tippecanoe43182336
Johnson37906521
Hendricks35984459
Porter34277466
Madison28722537
Clark25552325
Vigo25251344
LaPorte23269307
Monroe22751244
Howard21818377
Delaware21391366
Hancock18487220
Bartholomew17860213
Kosciusko17769201
Warrick16642213
Wayne16062300
Floyd15640257
Grant15143296
Morgan14245231
Boone13388136
Noble11656140
Dearborn11560112
Henry11546201
Shelby11483150
Marshall11258167
Dubois11123152
Jackson10425104
Cass10121142
DeKalb10101129
Lawrence10082220
Huntington10016139
Gibson9415125
Montgomery9153141
Knox8942124
Harrison8874112
Whitley861871
Steuben8488104
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Clinton810295
Putnam806199
Miami8032133
Jefferson7773124
Wabash7726139
Ripley7118112
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Daviess6455127
Scott638586
White613282
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Clay597573
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Decatur5885119
Jennings586278
Fayette5735121
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Washington494368
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Fountain472479
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Sullivan437465
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Pulaski270874
Newton231561
Brown226754
Benton215721
Crawford215131
Switzerland194214
Martin186722
Warren174821
Union165519
Ohio122616
Unassigned0739

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 2439205

Reported Deaths: 31245
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin2637212065
Cuyahoga2582743018
Hamilton1696091714
Montgomery1126771604
Summit1074271391
Lucas909371160
Butler80397942
Stark754911400
Lorain63313792
Warren51040475
Mahoning50162915
Lake47051605
Clermont44631429
Delaware39611212
Trumbull38910755
Medina37850419
Licking37593408
Fairfield34482334
Greene32823422
Portage31698360
Clark30769445
Richland28751423
Wood28217297
Allen24942395
Miami23274395
Muskingum22683245
Columbiana22370403
Wayne21565356
Tuscarawas19096427
Erie18282222
Ashtabula18102342
Marion17861232
Scioto17031207
Ross16556252
Pickaway15812178
Hancock15561228
Geauga15320223
Lawrence14172186
Union1359984
Huron13584182
Belmont13554247
Jefferson13090258
Sandusky12933199
Athens12126106
Knox11721198
Seneca11631200
Darke10950198
Ashland10916178
Washington10729168
Auglaize10364142
Crawford10062175
Shelby9961157
Brown9610140
Fulton9453150
Guernsey9304117
Highland9215148
Defiance9209135
Logan9114142
Clinton8950127
Mercer8816111
Madison8730106
Preble8145162
Williams8014135
Putnam7863135
Ottawa7752121
Champaign7696112
Jackson7510117
Perry725998
Coshocton7137136
Morrow706382
Fayette678287
Pike632586
Hardin6311128
Gallia605891
Adams5913124
Van Wert5877121
Henry577093
Hocking5634104
Carroll4877100
Wyandot487590
Holmes4787161
Paulding409064
Meigs380473
Monroe303368
Noble285051
Harrison284461
Morgan280348
Vinton245145
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