AJC EXCLUSIVE: Delta CEO to seek repayment from Atlanta airport outage

12:32 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 Business
Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, speaks during a 747 hangar party Tuesday night at Delta TechOps on Tuesday, December 19, 2017. Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said he found it “shocking” that it took nearly 12 hours to get the power back on at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — and he plans to seek compensation for the airline’s lost revenue.

The stern comments from the head of Atlanta’s largest airline signal that the crisis this week sparked discord between some of the Southeast’s most powerful entities: Delta, Georgia Power, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the City of Atlanta.

“It was a very difficult experience. And it was shocking, candidly, that it took so long to get the power back on,” he said. “I know they worked hard to deliver, but to be out of power for almost 12 hours is unbelievable.”

During an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at a Delta 747 farewell event Tuesday evening, Bastian said: “We will certainly be seeking the opportunity to have a conversation, and then seek reimbursement…. I don’t know whose responsibility it is between the airport and Georgia Power, but we’re going to have conversations with both of them.”

Bastian said the airline may have lost $25 million to $50 million of revenue as a result of the power outage that hit the world’s busiest airport on Sunday. That doesn’t include additional costs incurred by Delta, which canceled 1,400 flights and is reimbursing passengers for Sunday night hotel stays.

“We have a lot of people at the start of the business week that didn’t take their trips” because of the outage, Bastian said.

A spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office responded: “We look forward to collaborating with our partners, including Delta Airlines, to address Sunday’s outage and identify measures to prevent future incidents.”

To be sure, many Delta passengers have also been frustrated at the impact on their lives of the flight cancellations, including extra expenses for meals, lost wages and missed events.

Amid criticism of the limited information that trickled out from the city and the airport as the power outage progressed into multiple hours on Sunday, Delta’s chief also emphasized the importance of communication.

The airline has suffered through its own debacles leading to thousands of flight cancellations, including in the wake of a thunderstorm earlier this year and after a computer system outage last year.

“Having been there myself in a crisis, the most important thing is to stay visible, to let people know what you know, even if you don’t have all the answers — and to make certain you take responsibility,” Bastian said. “We’ll work aggressively on whatever fixes need to be installed to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

During a meltdown of Delta’s operation in April in the wake of a thunderstorm, the airline came under fire. Bastian was in Augusta for an event at the Masters Golf Tournament on the day of the storms, then flew to his Florida residence where he has a home office. Meanwhile, his chief operating officer Gil West handled the response in Atlanta and issued a statement apologizing to customers.

In the wake of this week’s power outage, Bastian said he was concerned about the impact on the airline’s passengers, employees and reputation. “Certainly the impact on our customers and our people and our brand was not good,” Bastian said.

Power has been restored at the world’s busiest airport after a massive outage Sunday afternoon left planes and passengers stranded for hours.

Bastian said the airline wasn’t able to tell its customers how long it might take to get the power back on “other than what Georgia Power was telling us — because we didn’t have responsibility for it.”

Delta, the dominant airline at Hartsfield-Jackson, is also pushing for more information about the cause of the incident, including what backups failed. Bastian said when he talked to Georgia Power the day after the power outage, “they still didn’t have all the answers.”

“I think we need to have a full postmortem as to what happened,” Bastian said. “We haven’t had the chance yet to sit down and fully understand what everyone could have done better.”

Bastian said he plans to meet with Atlanta Mayor-elect Keisha Lance Bottoms on the matter soon after she takes office next month.

“Certainly we’ll be looking to meet with our new mayor early in January to be able to take her through that discussion,” he said.

Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers committed to Delta to have a backup in place for the power system at the Atlanta airport by Friday, he added.

“I told Paul that we need to make certain that we learn from this, that we never experience this either here in Atlanta or any of the other big airports,” Bastian said.

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