Hartsfield-Jackson airport outage reminder of past transportation woes

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017 Local

It’s becoming all too familiar: some vital piece of Atlanta infrastructure comes apart like the Falcons in last season’s Super Bowl.

Two-and-a-half inches of winter’s fury left the region snowbound in 2014. Last March, burning spools of cable brought down a section of I-85. Now an electrical fire at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has again put Atlanta in national headlines.

“I’ll state the obvious,” said Mark Sweeney, at South Carolina-based site selection firm McCallum Sweeney. “It’s not good.”

This time, the snafu came at the start of the busy holiday travel season, creating a challenge for hometown Delta Air Lines and the nation’s other carriers. The airport outage also comes as the region vies for one of the biggest economic development prizes in recent memory — the second headquarters for e-commerce giant Amazon, and what the company promises will be 50,000 high-paying jobs for the winning city.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to several business recruitment professionals who said, long-term, the power outage that disrupted air service across the country and left tens of thousands of passengers stranded, shouldn’t dent Atlanta’s reputation. By late Monday, Delta said its operations were starting to return to normal.

But it is a reminder of perhaps the biggest major knock on the region — a transportation network that seems to be fragile at the worst times.

Amid rapid development, Atlanta has earned a poor reputation for traffic. Although this latest incident didn’t happen on the region’s highways, Sweeney said, for some “it might reinforce the notion that Atlanta has mobility challenges.”

But it would be more worrisome if there were multiple power issues at the airport that showed a lack of preparedness or mismanagement, he said. Sunday’s incident, he said, was simply a bad day at the airport.

“I wouldn’t expect this by itself to induce people to take (Atlanta) off the list,” he said. “If it happens again, then all the sudden people might say ‘wait a minute.’”

State recruiters, though, weren’t in any panic over the airport blackout.

“Unforeseen circumstances happen everywhere, the real test is how you respond, and we believe that Atlanta’s coordinated response shows that our public and private entities come together to serve our citizens like no other place in the world,” said Bert Brantley, the chief operating officer for the state Department of Economic Development.

Companies like Amazon weigh a number of factors, including education, skilled workforce, business climate, transportation and quality of life. Atlanta boasts a competitive hand that’s attracted relocations such as NCR, GE Digital, Mercedes-Benz USA and PulteGroup in recent years.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
On Monday passengers we’re still feeling the effects of Sunday’s power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as they had to endure long lines to claim baggage and ride shuttles. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Though Sunday and Monday produced headaches for passengers, Georgia Power and the airlines, it didn’t cause much disruption for the region’s logistics business. Atlanta has a busy air freight sector, but most freight here moves by rail and truck.

The U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx said the outage didn’t cause any significant problems for their operations.

The airport is Atlanta’s crown jewel of recruiting, and leaders boast of its defining role in metro Atlanta’s development. A 2014 study attributed about 450,000 direct and indirect jobs to the airport, and put the total annual revenue generated by Hartsfield-Jackson at $64.2 billion.

“As long as this is seen as this being a one-off fluke event, I don’t think this poses a reputational threat to the city,” said Roger Tutterow, a Kennesaw State University economist. “It’s getting a lot of press because it’s the world’s busiest airport. But that airport is still our greatest economic advantage.”

The outage inconvenienced travelers nationwide. Tens of thousands missed appointments and family gatherings, and many spent the night sleeping on floors.

If there was a bright side financially, the city’s hospitality industry saw a windfall when stranded passengers booked hotel rooms.

What isn’t clear is how much Delta and other carriers might lose in revenue from the disruption.

John Boyd, a site consultant in New Jersey who leads The Boyd Co., praised Atlanta’s response to the incident. Atlanta showed its community spirit, he said, pointing to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy answering the call of Mayor Kasim Reed to bring thousands of meals to stranded travelers.

The episode captured national news, but by Monday, operations at the airport were starting to look more normal.

“I think Amazon will measure this in terms of the response,” Boyd said. “I think the response was very good.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Peruvian exchange students (from left) Isreal Rodriguz, Alessa Carbonell, Antonella Linare and Kayla Velasquez, were marooned at Hartsfield-Jackson on Monday. The students are entering a work-study program in Oregon, once they get to Oregon. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Many travelers were less charitable. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who was stuck in a plane parked on the tarmac, blasted officials on Twitter, saying “there is no excuse” for not having a “workable redundant power source.”

Many who spent the night inside the airport, were upset by the lack of communication, food and water. Georgia Power officials and Reed offered their apologies for the inconvenience.

Brandon Talbert, a director with site selection firm Austin Consulting in Cleveland, said the airport outage and I-85 bridge collapse haven’t changed the way he looks at the region or advises clients.

“No location is foolproof when it comes to electric reliability,” he said, describing the outage as “a freak kind of incident.”

“It’s something you’d want to understand how to prevent this from happening in the future, of course,” he said. Prospects are likely to ask utility officials and city leaders detailed questions about what happened and inquire about the measures to ensure network reliability.

“As somebody who travels often, I’ve been stuck just about everywhere for about every reason,” he said. “It can happen anywhere.”

View full experience