Passengers were left in the dark and stuck in grounded planes on the tarmac at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on December 17, 2017, as a major power outage affected the busy airport. One woman at ATL described the scene as “literal pandemonium.” It took hours for the problem to be resolved.
Power was restored around midnight.
The latest information on cause: “…a fire caused extensive damage to an underground electrical facility,” Georgia Power wrote in a news release. Georgia Power added that the outage was expected to be fixed by midnight. However, Delta had already cancelled 300 flights for Monday, December 18.
The Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed, says there is no evidence the outage, which was caused by an electrical fire, is deliberate. “There is no evidence to suggest the fire was caused deliberately,” the mayor said in the Sunday evening press conferencing, adding that security sweeps were being conducted at the airport. “Even so, we are taking this matter extremely seriously…” He said one of Georgia Power’s three substations had a fire. At about 1:06 p.m., the power outage occurred at the airport. “Our fire units were dispatched and arrived on the scene within four minutes,” the mayor said. “…It took 1 and a half to 2 hours to make sure the fire was adequately contained.”
The mayor said that they expected the airport to be “fully operational” by midnight Sunday. He said a switch to activate the backup electrical system was damaged by the fire, which is why it didn’t activate. Officials said they don’t know the cause of the fire.
Asked by a reporter, “Can you positively at this point rule out terror?” Mayor Reed said, “We can’t rule it out at this time. As I said, right now we are moving ahead with a sweep of the premises, and we need to make sure that we’ve secured our campus… Georgia Power is actively engaged in getting our power back up. But because we don’t know the source of the fire, we have no way of absolutely knowing at this time that our system may have been tampered with in order to create this kind of chaos and confusion. So we’re not going to allow that to impact our security measures.”
Watch the mayor’s press conference here:
The mayor also said that travelers are being sent to the convention center for shelter, with meals courtesy of Chick-fil-A. However, according to Fox 5 anchorwoman Deidra Dukes, the mayor also “says can’t rule out terrorism, not ruling anything out while cause of blaze is unknown. Security sweeping the airport as @GeorgiaPower works to determine cause of fire.”
Flight Aware is a good site to track delays. On December 17, it reported of the Atlanta airport, that all inbound flights being held at their origin until 8 p.m. EST. “Arrival delays for airborne aircraft an average of 44 minutes… departure delays an average of 1 hours 20 minutes,” the site reported.
Georgia Power believes the issue may have involved a fire, which caused extensive damage in a Georgia Power underground electrical facility. “The fire was safely extinguished by fire crews before Georgia Power could enter the area to assess damage and begin repairs. The event impacted not only the underground facilities but also substations serving the Airport and, while the cause if not yet known, Georgia Power’s system responded by isolating areas where equipment wasn’t operating correctly to ensure safety and minimized damage,” Georgia Power wrote. “No personnel or passengers were in danger at any time. Georgia Power has many redundant systems in place to ensure reliability for the Airport and its millions of travelers – power outages affecting the Airport are very rare.”
The continued delay was bound to increase the frustration of stranded passengers. Hours after the outage first occurred, the situation was still not remedied. Delta wrote in a statement that more than 450 flights had been cancelled.
At 4 p.m., the airport released a press release saying that the cause of the power outage remained under investigation. “ATL officials are working with Georgia power to identify the cause and remedy the situation, and will update as soon as more information is made available, “ wrote the airport, which reported that the power outage occurred shortly after 1 p.m. on December 17.
The airport noted that the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a ground stop for flights headed to Atlanta’s airport, with many flights inbound to Atlanta being diverted. “A ground stop means that flights headed to Atlanta are held on the ground at their departure airport,” reported the airport.
The airport directed passengers to their individual airlines’ social media channels as well as its own.
People’s patience was fraying.
The airport confirmed the outage had occurred in a brief statement posted on Twitter, but it initially provided few details, which was outraging some passengers. “A power outage has impacted several areas in the airport. #ATL officials are working to remedy the situation. Additional updates to come,” wrote the airport on Twitter after the blackout first occurred. The airport had said little else at first, but later tweeted, “The FAA has set a ground stop for flights into #ATL due to the outage. A ground stop means flights to ATL are held at departure airports.” The Atlanta airport also retweeted a post from Georgia Power that read, “We are aware of a situation currently being investigated at this time and will share more information as it becomes available.”
Early reports blamed a cut power line, but that was before Georgia Power pinned the blame on a fire. “A Delta Air Lines pilot said a construction crew cut a power line, causing the outage,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, but the official cause had not yet been revealed. Reporter Joe Henke of 11AliveNews tweeted, “@GeorgiaPower confirms there is a power outage at @ATLairport. GA Power confirms they have crews headed that way. No further details at this moment.”
The airport tweeted that the cut power line report was not confirmed.
Henke also wrote, “@ATLairport spokesman tells NBC News power outage happened around 12:55 p.m. Cause is an electrical issue at GA Power substation. @GeorgiaPower and @ATLFireRescue at the airport. A large portion of Hartsfield-Jackson is impacted.”
The FAA released a statement announcing a ground stop for flights.
The airport had not provided an additional update at about 2:12 p.m. eastern time on December 17. People expressed upset on social media by the lack of information from the airport, with one man writing, “Little more info? You’re not running a regional airport with 4 flights a day.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested that people “check the official FAA website for air traffic control updates. As of 2 p.m., traffic destined to Atlanta was being delayed at its departure point.” Here’s that link.
One woman wrote on Twitter that she was stuck on the tarmac and “our captain has informed a construction crew CUT A POWER LINE and that is why the entire Atlanta Airport is without power. You cannot make this stuff up.” That cause was not yet confirmed by authorities or the airport, though. The woman who tweeted the comment followed it up by writing, “The cut power line is an uncertain factor…. not verified. Im just a disgruntled passenger and Saints fan. #ATLAirport.” However, the information about the fire came after the unconfirmed cut line report.
Other people reported that they were stuck on escalators. “I’m stuck between escalators with about 100 people and we’re not allowed up or down. Please pick up the pace–people are getting antsy,” reported one passenger, who wrote the comment to the airport’s Twitter page. The same man added,”TSA agents shouting at people to not go up or down the escalators.”
Others criticized the airport for taking too long to make the announcement, with one person writing, “You should be embarrassed about how long it took you to make an announcement on Twitter to calm passengers in terminals.” Wrote another, “Literal pandemonium at the @ATLairport with power completely out and electric exit doors unable to open. Baggage claim stuck, passengers can go no where! Which means traffic can’t either. GBI and other law enforcement on site now. Talk about delays! #atlanta.”
It’s not yet clear why the power went out at the busy airport or when it will go back on. There were reports that flights were grounded, and the outage was widespread. Photos showed people milling around in the dark.
One passenger wrote on Twitter, “More info needed @ATLairport – Stuck at gateway center train stop. What is going on? Lots of firetrucks is all we see.” Many people had the same question as this man, who wrote on Twitter: “@ATLairport , sitting in the plane at the gate. Any idea when the power will be restored?” However, authorities had not yet presented a timeline.
Here’s a video from the airport:
11Alive’s Faith Abubey “was in the North Terminal at the time of the outage, and reports that all power is out there. In speaking to staff at the United Airlines desk, she says she was told that the outage was over the entire airport and that flights were grounded,” reported 11Alive.com.
Although the outage was very inconveniencing to a lot of people, some people on social media decided to turn it into a joke.
Others didn’t think it was funny at all. “It would be cool if the people stuck waiting on their planes could get some water or food. We’ve been waiting almost an hour to get off the plane already,” wrote one woman on Twitter. Another woman wrote, “That’s terrible! I just got a text from @Delta saying my friend’s connection is scheduled to depart at 2:15… It doesn’t seem like she’d make it to her connection.”