A fire at an underground electrical facility caused an 11 hour blackout that brought the world’s busiest airport to a standstill. The blackout at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led to the cancellation of more than 1,500 flights and stranding tens of thousands of people in darkened terminals or on the tarmac, where some passengers sat for more than five hours on grounded planes.
The power outage began shortly after 1 p.m. leaving passengers in dim and overcrowded terminals as afternoon turned to evening. Frustrated travelers lighted their way through smoky corridors with cellphones. On Twitter, passengers reported waiting on the tarmac for more than five hours as the lack of power at the terminals made it hard to de-plane. Getting out of the terminals quickly became difficult as traffic snarled access roads and MARTA trains ran at capacity to downtown.
The train between terminals was shut down and elevators, escalators, automatic doors and baggage carousels stood still. Screens went black and the intercom for flight updates was silent. No one could get reliable phone or internet service to access texts, email, flight apps or social media. With a lack of information, travelers were too nervous to leave their spots, fearing the power might soon return at any moment and they’d lose their place in the line they were in.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed later said the fire was so intense that it damaged two substations serving the airport, including the airport’s back-up power system and prevented emergency crews from accessing the site for two to three hours. Paul Bowers, Georgia Power’s president and CEO said there was a failure in the switchgear that caused the fire and the fire was contained by 3:30pm. An estimated 30,000 people were affected by the power outage.
Delta bore the brunt of the impact, cancelling approximately 900 flights and diverting 48 more. The carrier said about 300 flights would also be cancelled on Monday, as the chaos spilled into one of the busiest air travel weeks of the year. The blackout led the Federal Aviation Administration to declare a ground stop at the airport, preventing Atlanta-bound flights in other airports from taking off and causing inbound flights to be diverted. The ground stop in Atlanta disrupted air travel across the United States.
Some power was restored just before midnight but stranded travelers were still sleeping on the floor the day after the outage. Long ticket and security lines were moving slowly as normalcy began returning to the airport Monday. Volunteers in shirts that said, “Ask Me,” tried to allay concerns and passed out doughnuts to those in line, many of whom shared horror stories about the night before.
Some travelers said airline and airport employees did their best to take care of stranded passengers, handing out blankets, beverages, even slices of pizza. Others reported a lack of communication, widespread rumors, the strong smell of fire near baggage claim and a taxi line that amounted to “pandemonium.” While some fortunate passengers were able to board the flights departing Atlanta the day after the outage, other passengers were being told they’d have to wait hours or days. One airline was telling passengers it would be five days before they could get a flight out.