Opinion: Powering greater reliability

With post-mortems underway into the airport blackout, the result must be better systems of preventing, or managing, similar future crises.

As inclement weather in recent years has made forcefully clear, if metro Atlanta truly wants to routinely perform on a global stage, it must have infrastructure worthy of a world-class metropolis.

The spectacular December 17 electrical power meltdown at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport dramatically suggested we’re not yet playing in that exclusive league. That episode shows we’ve got a ways to go in hardening a vital airport’s systems to prepare for what’s now a foreseeable worst case. To be all we want to be as a region and state, we must learn from the outage’s hard lessons and better ensure Hartsfield is adequately prepared for the next potential disaster.

When we’re a contender for the likes of the next headquarters of Amazon, we cannot let a well-publicized stumble outweigh our considerable strengths. Digging rapidly and deeply into what happened at Hartsfield, and how we can improve our readiness — or better yet, prevent a recurrence — seems the best way to mitigate any negative marks that the giant online retailer may be balancing against positives as it considers Georgia’s application for HQ2.

Statisticians and other numbers types speak of “Black Swan” events – things that can make lightning strikes seem commonplace. They lead humans to scramble afterward to make sense of them, and argue over whether or not they could have been predicted. Probability expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines Black Swans as sharing the following three characteristics:

“First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Going forward, the natural tendency may be to believe the Hartsfield underground electrical fire and resultant 11-hour descent into darkness was a Black Swan – wholly unpredictable and not worth much reflection or action in hindsight.

That would be a mistake, in our view. The airport, and its associated government entities, must think well beyond that convenient box. A thorough analysis of the event is the first step. Officials say that inquiry is already underway. Good.

The resulting insights should quickly point out any needed improvements to the hardware, software and human systems that make Hartsfield go, or that safeguard it as the massive economic and mobility linchpin that it really is.

It’s not rocket science, for example, to rapidly assess the wisdom of relocating adjacent primary and backup power systems so that a future disruption or failure with one doesn’t hinder performance of the other. At a place as important as Hartsfield, backup must be synonymous with reliable.

The list of other matters in need of addressing is substantial Among them:

  • Travelers were stuck on grounded aircraft for hours, with no organized procedures to deplane them.
  • Passengers were literally, and/or figuratively, left in the dark for at least part of the time. And, with the world’s busiest airport in darkness, travelers continued to arrive for flights, unaware of the airport’s status.
  • First responders, including some police, had to be escorted past checkpoints because of security measures.
  • Cellphone service faltered without electric power for antennas or signal boosters.
  • Too few radios were apparently among those who needed them, resulting in a scenario where “offers of help went unanswered and suggestions unused,” according to an AJC report.

Worse yet, passengers already in the darkened terminals in many cases did not know why the place had gone dark. Without adequate, reliable information, travelers were in no position to decide whether to leave Hartsfield-Jackson, or stick around and hope the power outage would be short-lived.

There’s risk in Monday Morning quarterbacking, but we believe officials were far too slow in informing the public about an admittedly fluid situation at Hartsfield. The explanation offered is that officials were loath to share incomplete, or nonexistent, information. That strategy needs revision. When as many as 35,000 people are affected, even fragments of best-available data are likely more useful than raw silence, we believe.

In fairness, employees on-site at the airport during the outage worked hard, and even heroically, to help guide travelers through a bad, potentially dangerous, situation. That should not be overlooked. Things could have been far, far worse.

And, realistically, there’s no such thing as guarding perfectly against every possible event, known or imagined. Risk can be managed, but never fully eradicated.

Even so, we have to believe there’s considerable room to improve systems and devise better measures and infrastructure that will hopefully ensure the spectacular failure at Hartsfield remains a one-time-only event.

A competent process to get there, and keep the public informed on progress, will represent time and money well-spent.

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