ATLANTA -- It’s been more than two months since a disastrous fire in a tunnel beneath the concourses at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport destroyed both the primary and backup electrical systems.
It threw the airport into total darkness, shutting down all flight operations for almost 12 hours. Big questions remain about what went wrong and what's being done to make sure it does not happen again.
It was a busy Sunday, Dec. 17 and just before the holidays, when all the power went out. And with the outage came chaos and confusion as more than 30,000 stranded passengers remained in the dark for nearly 12 hours.
They scrambled to figure out what happened and tried to get information. Roosevelt Council Jr., Hartsfield Jackson’s general manager, now admits that keeping people informed was the airport's greatest failure.
“I think that the thing that affected us the most was probably the communications piece,” he said. “We could have actually done that better., we literally could have done that better.”
That's an understatement if you just ask passengers who were stranded in the dark, having no idea what was going on.
“I’ve been trying to ask everybody how can they help me. Nobody wants to help me. Everybody doesn’t know anything,” said one passenger standing near the Delta ticket counter.
As the clock ticked away, the unfolding domino effect took over: a PA system that didn’t work, a minimal number of megaphones, cell phone service and internet service that either did not work or was spotty at best.
We asked Council what he is doing to ensure this debacle of communication doesn’t happen again.
“We have deployed 40 megaphones throughout the airport - throughout every concourse - to be able to share information with all of the passengers here at the airport," he said. "We are looking at adding a redundant PA system that will allow us to communicate more effectively here at the airport.”
But the power problem continues.
Although Council said he is working with Georgia Power on a long-range plan to provide a redundant power system for the entire airport, in the shorter term -- and within the next 6 months -- the airport will install large generators on each concourse and in the terminals to provide emergency power if the lights go out again.
These larger generators will back up smaller ones already in place and the airport said it is now working to accelerating the delivery schedule for the new generators to weeks rather than months.
But if the power fails right now, what happens?
“If we were to lose power can I say we can bring in full power 100 percent, the way we actually had it? I probably would say no, but we should be able to have enough power to keep the airport operating at some degree of efficiency,” Council said. “The bottom line is that we are trying to put in play all those instances where something like this won’t happen again. Having Georgia Power engaged the way we have has actually created a sense of awareness for them, so I think the reaction time will be a key to everything.”
At the world busiest airport with more than 2,700 flights a day, there is no alternative. As the airport power issues continue to be sorted out, Delta continues in limbo on what it will do about its financial loss, suffered when the lights went out and all domestic and international flights were grounded.
The airline said they canceled more than 400 flights related to the Dec. 17 blackout and lost $40 million. No word yet on who may pay that bill.