The world’s busiest airport — at an absolute standstill


Let nothing you dismay.

The performance of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by a middle school chorus flowed softly and ironically through the atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International late Monday morning.

The big open space in the terminal was full of weary, unwashed faces; several people had simply pulled blankets over their heads. The departure board by noon showed traffic moving. Well, not all traffic:

Detroit 1306 … canceled.

Shreveport 7027 … canceled

New York JFK 4817 … canceled

Las Vegas 1402 … canceled

Etc.

HJIA on Sunday was the scene of an aviation disaster in which nothing crashed but an electrical system. Medical consequences were mostly limited to blood pressure spikes among people who sat in motionless planes or stood in motionless lines for five hours.

On Monday, while travelers snoozed in the atrium or gazed into the middle distance, a group of Peruvian exchange students rested on the carpeted floor one story up, nibbling on gummy bears. They had tried to sleep on the floor the night before. Masses of people surrounded them. It was eerily quiet. And dark. 

Hartsfield-Jackson security line wait timesCheck your flight status into and out of AtlantaAtlanta power outage FAQs

‘This has been very bizarre’

It’s difficult to imagine the scene at the airport on Sunday. The concourses and the underground transportation mall were plunged into darkness. Dozens of idle aircraft with hundreds of idle people sat on the tarmac.

In a darkened Concourse D, traveler Olivia Dorfman said, smoke filled the area near Gate D9A, and workers tried to herd passengers away from the smoky area. Then they seemed to herd passengers back toward it.

“This has been very bizarre,” Dorfman said. “No one seems to know what they’re doing.”

They continued not to know what they were doing for several hours on Sunday. Scores of people stood in lines that never seemed to go anywhere. The wait there was about five hours, with little news.

Ruth Osborn, 69, flew into Atlanta Sunday afternoon, expecting to board a connecting flight to Dallas. On the tarmac in Atlanta, a photo popped up in her text messages – homemade cornbread, chili, a table set in red and green for the holidays.

The cornbread and chili is waiting for you. It will still be warm for you when you arrive.

She was stuck on the plane for about two hours. By the time Osborn got inside the airport, there was no wi-fi and no food. She sat by a window for a sliver of light. Then she sat in darkness. At last she was able to get out and shuttle to a nearby hotel.

By Monday, however, it was clear that she’d have to scratch the rest of her trip and return to Columbus. She couldn’t get to Dallas before late Monday night, and she was supposed to go home on Tuesday. Her lime green luggage – filled with toys and gifts – would go back to Columbus with her.

“I’m sad,” said Osborn, sitting in the atrium near a Christmas tree. “I was really looking forward to seeing my family, my sister, my nieces, my baby nieces and nephews.”

FAQs for power outage at Atlanta airport

‘Total and abject failure here’

If you’re going to have a customer-service disaster in air travel, it’s probably a good idea to wait until the former U.S. secretary of transportation has left the building, or the plane. Anthony Foxx, a member of Barack Obama’s cabinet, was livid.

“Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today,” Foxx tweeted Sunday afternoon. “I am stuck on @delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it. But there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE!”

Georgia Power didn’t offer one, exactly. The company said its underground substation had caught fire just after noon on Sunday.

In a statement early Monday, the utility company said its burning “switchgear” was inconveniently adjacent to the “redundant” cables and switches serving the airport. The fire took out the redundant cables and switches, and HJIA went dark.

A contrite Mayor Kasim Reed waited until it was as dark outside as it was inside the terminal before making a statement. Reed weighed in more than eight hours after the fire was first detected, saying he wanted “to express my sincere apologies to the thousands of passengers whose day has been disrupted in this manner.”

On Monday he even apologized for taking so long to apologize on Sunday. The mayor promised that a series of fixes by Georgia Power and the city would prevent a recurrence of the blackout. He also said the city would invest in “more aggressive portable lighting capability.”

Too late for the Kennesaw State University women’s basketball team, though. The team was stranded wtih everyone esle at Hartsfield-Jackson on Sunday, their Christmas trip to Puerto Rico for a basketball tournament over before it began.

Waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Aksa Anwar and Salman Masood saved up for a year for their big honeymoon trip to Hawaii.

For a week, the Sandy Springs couple took in the sights and tastes of Maui, Oahu and Kauai. They hit the beaches. They ate shaved ice. They stopped by the roadside to drink sugar cane juice.

“We had a great time,” said Anwar, a data warehouse developer.

The return home, however, was not the perfect end to a perfect week.

After more than 20 hours aloft, they had to sit on the plane for 2½ hours before they were permitted to leave. Flight attendants handed out complimentary sodas and cookies. Their phone batteries were draining. “We could barely talk to our families,” Anwar said. “People were just tired and ready to get off the plane. Kids were crying. “

She was stunned at the scene in the airport. Stranded passengers were everywhere. On the floor. On the baggage carousel.

A 14-hour trip turned into a 25-hour trip start to finish.

“I probably won’t fly for a while,” said an exhausted Anwar, who was back at work Monday.

Deanna Doswell of Blakely, Ga., stood in line for five hours on Sunday, like everybody else, and then made her escape when police said people could clear out. Asked how she made her way to a hotel, she replied: “I stood for an hour in the taxi line.”

She booked a new flight to Kansas City departing at 10:20 p.m. Monday. But she had to check out of the hotel by 11 a.m. and didn’t want to pay for another day at the inn. So it was back to the airport for a 12-hour wait.

Nothing to it.

“I’ve got a book to read. And then I’ll get to buy another one and read it!” she said.

Staff writer Shelia Poole contributed to this article.



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