As the U.S. airline industry geared up for the pre-Christmas rush, officials declared that things were back to normal following the Dec. 20 blackout at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which knocked out power to the world’s busiest airport and roiled air travel throughout the country.
But judging from comments from airline industry officials and analysts, the memory of the meltdown won’t fade so quickly.
Delta Air Lines, the carrier most directly affected by the fiasco, has already told the local utility company, Georgia Power, that it expects to be compensated to the tune of about $50 million. In Atlanta alone, more than 1,500 flights were canceled over two days; more than 1,200 of them were Delta flights.
“It was shocking, candidly, that it took so long to get the power back on,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told the Atlanta Constitution, adding “to be out of power for almost 12 hours is unbelievable.” He also said the airport could bear some responsibility too.
And the airline’s losses could be even larger, since it is only now assessing the expenses of accommodating affected passengers. Delta and other airlines also issued waivers for travelers who had booked flights to, or through, Atlanta in the days following the outage.
What set off the blaze is still under investigation, but the problem reportedly began when a piece of equipment failed, starting a fire in an underground area that houses electrical systems. The power company confirmed that the problem quickly spread to “redundant circuit cables and switching mechanisms", in effect, gutting its back-up system.
The failure stranded thousands of passengers who were literally in the dark, with little or no information on what was happening or when they’d be on their way.
And one of those passengers was none other than the former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who served in the Obama administration, and tweeted from his Delta flight as it sat on the tarmac:
“Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today. I am stuck on @delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it. But there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE! “
Atmosphere Research analyst Henry Harteveldt said that the incident was a wake- up call to the industry.
“We’ve never seen anything like this happen” on this scale, he said. “Airlines must have been stunned when they realized that the power supply and secondary supply to the world’s biggest airport were flowing through the same station.”
He pointed out that the failure affected virtually all operations at the entire airport; in other glitches affecting air travel, such as Delta’s computer outage not long ago, at least some systems could function. “When there’s an IT outage, at least you can down your sorrows at the airport bar,” he said.
The one good thing coming from this, he said, is that “all airports will be taking steps to make sure this won’t happen again."
It’s also renewing calls for more capital investment in aging airport facilities; the Airports Council International, for example, has said that U.S. airports need some $100 billion in infrastructure upgrades over the next five years to avoid falling behind. But Harteveldt said that the cause of the Atlanta meltdown may be different: “It’s not clear it’s the result of an antiquated infrastructure; it’s more likely the result of bad planning and bad execution.”
Meanwhile, AAA forecasts that a record 107.3 million Americans will be traveling by all transportation modes from Dec. 23 through New Year’s Day, including 6.4 million air travelers – a four percent increase.