Siddharth Agarwal was looking forward to taking a hot shower and sleeping in his bed in Atlanta after an all-night journey from India.
But soon after his Qatar Airways flight touched down in Atlanta Sunday afternoon, it became tantalizingly clear that while he was just 15 minutes from home, he remained very far away.
Details were slow to trickle out from the cockpit, but a quick Internet search revealed that the power at the world’s busiest airport had already been out for more than two hours.
“The captain also told us that we were one of the last international flights that was allowed to land, so we had 30 or 32 planes ahead of us,” Mr. Agarwal said. That’s when his heart sank and he settled in, enjoying the Middle Eastern carrier’s refreshments and letting fellow passengers use his phone.
“The situation was not in anyone’s hands. We just had to wait it out,” he told Global Atlanta.
For six hours. On the tarmac.
That story played out many times over Sunday, with more than 1,100 flights canceled during an 11-hour freak outage that Georgia Power said could have been caused by the failure of “piece of switchgear at an underground electrical facility.” Whatever ignited it, the blaze paralyzed the city’s economic engine from just after 1 to 11:45 p.m.
So often the jewel in Atlanta’s crown, the airport for a day became a weight around the city’s neck, showing that the “world’s busiest airport” moniker can cut both ways from a public-relations perspective.
Travelers posted online videos of themselves using phones as flashlights in pitch-dark terminals. Many complained that the authorities were missing in action as security checkpoints were shut down, baggage carousels ground to a halt, outbound flights were held and thousands of passengers were left stranded in terminals with non-working water fountains and shuttered restaurants.
Twitter lit up with responses that ranged from quizzical to downright angry, even from former DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx:
Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today. I am stuck on @delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it. But there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE! #atlairport #delta
— anthonyfoxx (@anthonyfoxx) December 17, 2017
@GovNathanDeal @Delta @CNN It’s truly unimaginable that an airport like #ATL could suffer such an outage. This is an embarrassment to the City of #Atlanta & State of #Georgia. Those of us #delayed deserve an answer and #apology @ATLairport. INVESTIGATE & FIRE who allowed it
— Brian Dyches, FRDI (@briandyches) December 17, 2017
Pay your electric bill! I just want to get home. How does a whole airport terminal A-F loose power? Good Grief!
— tammymgarcia (@tgarcia0519) December 17, 2017
get us out of the airplanes!
— Beto (@BetoAg99) December 17, 2017
Making things worse, Georgia Power issued a seemingly contradictory statement. Even while admitting that the fire took out a nearby backup cable, the embattled utility said it “has many redundant system [sic] and sources of power in place to ensure reliability for the Airport and its millions of travelers – power outages affecting the Airport are very rare.”
Delta Air Lines Inc., which handles 80 percent of traffic in Atlanta, cancelled 1,000 flights nationwide Sunday and another 390 Monday morning. No cancellations were reported after 1 p.m. Delta was reimbursing travelers who were forced into hotels Sunday night.
Ozer Kocdemir, who lives in Atlanta, was trying to get to Miami to catch a flight to visit family in Sweden. He had about 30 people ahead of him in the TSA security line when everything went dark.
At first, he thought it was a temporary glitch limited to the immediate area. After an hour, the only advice he’d received was from TSA agents who said flights within an hour would be cancelled. It wasn’t until six hours later that he got official word from Delta.
“People were surprisingly calm, I have to say,” Mr. Kocdemir said, but he echoed criticisms of how the outage was handled. No one, he said, gave a coherent picture of where to go or what to do. He had to go outside to get cell service to learn more.
For international travelers in both directions, the debacle cost more than just a few hours. Twenty-two inbound international flights were diverted to destinations around the U.S., following diversion plans similar to those used during a weather event.
Delta said it moved 48 flights to other hubs. An airline spokesman couldn’t list all the origin markets, but Global Atlanta confirmed at least one route that wasn’t as lucky as Qatar Airways.
A Delta flight coming from Seoul to Atlanta was sent instead to Detroit. Passengers were processed through customs and spent the night at a Delta-provided hotel before boarding a new flight that arrived in Atlanta at 2 p.m. Monday, according to Korea Daily.
Those international travelers who were lucky enough to get into Concourse F Sunday night were processed with minimal disruption, even after the power went out, according to the Atlanta field office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A spokesman said agents were able to use battery-powered laptops to clear passengers who had already arrived, with wait times between 30 minutes and an hour. All passengers who had arrived in Atlanta from overseas were cleared before midnight, according to CBP.
That process was helped along by the fact that the international terminal was the first to get its power back just after 7:30 p.m. It was nearly midnight before all concourses were back up.
But that was too late to keep some travelers from experiencing their own horror stories.
John Eaves, who also served as Fulton County’s top elected official until he stepped down to run in Atlanta’s recent mayoral race, found a strange scene when he arrived two hours before his fight to Germany.
“Like the other passengers, I was blindsided and in disbelief as I arrived at the international terminal at 4 p.m., saw no power, and witnessed chaos,” the former Fulton County commission chairman wrote in a blog post criticizing the management of the crisis.
At least from his vantage point in the international terminal, there was little communication with passengers — no megaphones or anything that could be used in lieu of the downed intercom system.
“The only announcements that were given were those of a lone Delta flight reservationist and a single rep from British Airlines who announced in their loud voices, ‘flights to London have been cancelled,’” he said.
Mayor Kasim Reed, the boss of the city-run airport, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the slow response was in part due to the nature of the fire, which Georgia Power said burned in an enclosed area underground, requiring heavy ventilation before technicians could enter and get started on a fix. Mr. Reed basically said he would rather get things right than communicate false information quickly.
But for Mr. Eaves —who has taken shots at the Reed administration before on crisis management — this was a “colossal failure,” an indictment on the airport’s leadership showing a lack of preparedness that could have been even more grave if the situation had required evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
At the very least, it was a stain on Atlanta’s role as a welcoming city, Mr. Eaves said.
“There was no empathy given to passengers. As a Southern city that espouses hospitality, I was very disappointed that no Atlanta city official or airport personnel walked rounds with passengers to express any apologies,” Mr. Eaves said. “I was on site for three hours and I did not see any of this happening. This was a missed opportunity, because many out-of-town visitors who were passing through our airport now have a bitter taste in their mouths.”
It was yet another setback for Atlanta in a year plagued with transportation woes, from a fire burning down a section of Interstate 85 to an early snowstorm in December that could have become a repeat of “Snowpocalypse 2014.”
While many online praised frontline workers like gate agents and flight attendants for their poise during the crisis, some travelers openly wondered on social media whether they will choose to fly again through Atlanta, which gets about two-thirds of its world-leading 104 million passengers from transfers.
Mr. Agarwal, who works at a logistics company, sees this as a fluke event. He agrees that authorities could have done more for those stuck on planes, but his experience could have been far worse.
At 10:45 p.m., he breezed through customs in about 15 minutes and took an Uber home. He was in bed by midnight, happy to have the luxury of driving a few miles back to the airport Monday to pick up his lost bag. Out-of-towners weren’t so fortunate.
Even after 36 hours in transit, he’d kept some perspective on his unfulfilled plans:
“You know what they say: ‘Man proposes, God disposes.’”
For Mr. Eaves, it wasn’t all bad either. Reached by email Monday evening, he was boarding a plane in Munich.
For more comprehensive coverage of the outage and its causes, follow the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other sources.