The fire that shut down power at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was a wake-up call for airports across the country, experts say.
Though the airport and Georgia Power are still investigating the cause, aviation experts questioned why the parts of the backup electrical system serving the airport were located so close to the main power system – close enough that both were disabled by a single fire.
Airport and Georgia Power officials apologized for the 11-hour power outage that stranded thousands of travelers. They said they’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again, but they portrayed the incident as a fluke.
“In the 40 years or so the airport has been here, we’ve never had anything like this happen,” airport communications director Reese McCranie said.
But airline consultant Mike Boyd said that’s the kind of thinking airport officials across the country need to get over.
“Knocking down the World Trade Center was unusual, too,” Boyd said. “Make no mistake, we had a major security issue (in Atlanta) yesterday.”
The airport lost power shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday. Georgia Power said the cause of the outage was a fire that damaged an underground electrical facility, along with substations serving the airport and the backup electrical system. The utility restored power shortly before midnight.
Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday the fire occurred in a tunnel that runs along the path of the underground Plane Train tunnel near Concourse E.
Bowers said even as they are investigating the cause of the fire they are working to restore a backup power source to the airport. “We will have that complete by the end of the week, and then we will turn to what caused the failure of the switch gear,” he said.
Though the cause isn’t yet known, he said foul play is not suspected.
“There are two things that could happen,” he said. “There are inner workings of the switch gear that could create the heat that caused the fire, or the splicing going into that switch gear — that the cable had a failure on that going into the switch gear.”
When asked if age of the system could have been a failure, Bowers said his company conducts regular inspections.
“We constantly inspect,” he said. “We inspect on an annual basis to ensure the reliability of the network, and that redundancy is protection for the airport.”
Bowers said he is not familiar with any similar fire or outage at the airport.
“The issue for us is to ensure the reliability is here and that it doesn’t happen again and to ensure that our network is resilient enough to withstand any kind of fire,” he said.
Iris Tien, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Georgia Tech, has studied redundant electrical and other systems. She said there needs to be a balance between keeping backup systems close enough to make repairs easy and far enough away to make sure they can’t be compromised along with the main system.
Cost is also a factor.
“You have to be redundant while still being financially feasible,” Tien said.
Airline consultant Robert Mann said Georgia Power’s backup system isn’t the only one in question. He wondered whether the airport and the airlines had generators or other backup systems and whether they worked.
“They work all the time in tests,” Mann said. “Then when the stuff hits the fan, (sometimes) it doesn’t work.”
McCranie said most of the airport’s generators worked. They provide power for emergency lights, CPR machines and other safety systems.
But he said there was at least one concourse that did not have power. He said at least one generator may have gone off line.
Boyd said airport officials didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. But he said the United States generally has not responded well to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He said the nation’s infrastructure remains vulnerable – and not just to terrorists. In some places, a simple car accident can knock out electricity to a large area.
“In every city in America, there are places where our electrical grid has vulnerabilities,” Boyd said. “We haven’t needed to think about it (before).”
The solution, Boyd said, is for airport managers and others to think about everything that could go wrong – not dismiss problems that have never happened before.
“This was a huge event – no question,” he said. “The good news is, it’s a wake-up call for what happens next.”
McCranie said airport employees train for such incidents as power outages, active shooters and terrorist attacks. He said it will review Sunday’s outage to make sure something like it doesn’t happen again.
“The redundant systems we put in place we believe would have covered a power outage,” McCranie said. “Because of yesterday’s power outage, we’re reviewing that very closely. We’re looking at possible remedies.”
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