A blackout brought Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to a standstill on Sunday afternoon, leading to the cancellation of more than 1,100 flights and stranding tens of thousands of people in darkened terminals or on the tarmac, where some flights sat for more than five hours.
The power outage began shortly after 1 p.m. and may have been caused by a fire at an underground electrical facility at the airport, the airport said in a release. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed later said the fire was so intense that it took out the airport’s back-up power system and prevented emergency crews from accessing the site for two to three hours. As of Sunday night, he said, there was no evidence of foul play.
Atlanta-based Delta bore the brunt of the impact, cancelling approximately 900 flights on Sunday and diverting 48 more. The carrier said about 300 flights would also be cancelled on Monday, as the chaos cascades into one of the busiest air travel weeks of the year.
It was the second time in a year that a key element of Atlanta’s infrastructure had given way. In April, a fire collapsed a portion of the city’s Interstate 85. It would be easy to say—and many people will say—that the unprecedented chaos at the world’s busiest airport seemed like further proof that America’s infrastructure is falling apart. But it’s a little too early to make that call.
At the airport, meanwhile, travelers expressed frustration at the lack of communication from authorities. Passengers sat in dim and overcrowded terminals as Sunday afternoon turned to evening, or lighted their way through smoky corridors with cellphones. On Twitter, passengers reported waiting on the tarmac for more than five hours as the lack of power at the terminals made it hard to de-plane. Getting out of the terminals was no easier, as traffic snarled access roads and MARTA trains ran at capacity to downtown.
One of those passengers was Anthony Foxx, who served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation until this January. “Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today,” Foxx, who was stuck on a Delta flight, wrote on Twitter. “There is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE!”