Thousands stranded on Monday morning after fire on Sunday afternoon in underground electrical facility
Power has been restored to the worlds busiest airport but the travel woes will linger for days.
Thousands of people were stranded on Monday morning at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta international airport, where more than 1,000 flights were grounded just days before the start of the Christmas travel rush.
A sudden power outage that Georgia Power said was caused by a fire in an underground electrical facility brought the airport to a standstill on Sunday, at about 1pm.
All outgoing flights were halted, and arriving planes were held on the ground at their point of departure. International flights were being diverted, officials said.
Delta, with its biggest hub in Atlanta, will be hardest hit. By Sunday evening, Delta had canceled nearly 900 flights and another 300 on Monday, nearly all of them in Atlanta, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.
Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former American Airlines executive, said it would probably be Tuesday before Deltas operations in Atlanta return to normal, and for passengers it could be most of the week because there are not many open seats on other flights in the last week before Christmas.
One bit of good news, according to Mann: Delta has more spare planes and available crews in Atlanta than anywhere else, which should help it to recover.
Delta customers flying to or from Atlanta can make a one-time change to travel plans without incurring a $200 change fee. The airline also encouraged travelers not to pick up their bags on Monday because of anticipated congestion at the airport.
Still, when flights at Atlanta were grounded for most of one day last spring, it took Delta five days and about 4,000 canceled flights before it fully recovered.
Other airlines also canceled flights for the rest of Sunday. American Airlines said it canceled 24 departures and an equal number of arrivals. AA also diverted three planes that were headed to Atlanta when the outage struck, sending them instead to Dallas, Nashville and back to Philadelphia.
The city of Atlanta provided shuttle service to the Georgia Convention Center on Sunday for travelers needing a place to stay.
Delta passenger Emilia Duca, 32, was on her way to Wisconsin from Bogot when she got stuck in Atlanta.
A lot of people are arriving, and no one is going out. No one is saying anything official. We are stuck here, she said. Its a nightmare.
Some passengers said there was a lack of information from airport officials and little help from first responders.
They had these elderly people, people lined up in wheelchairs, said stranded passenger Rutia Curry. The people were helpless, they cant get down the stairs. It was just a nightmare.
The FAA said it would staff the airport control tower throughout the night so it could handle flights once they resume. The FAA said the tower could operate normally but flights were affected because airport equipment in the terminals was not working.
According to a Georgia Power statement, the utility believes a piece of equipment in an underground electrical facility may have failed, causing the fire. The fire was next to equipment for a backup system, causing that to also fail.
No personnel or passengers were in danger at any time, the statement said.
No areas outside of the airport were affected by the power loss. The utility said there are many redundant systems in place to ensure the power supply to the airport and that such outages at the airport are very rare.
Anthony Foxx, who served as US transportation secretary under Barack Obama, tweeted that he was among the many travelers stuck for hours on a plane on the tarmac.
Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today, he tweeted, adding that there was no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE!
In another tweet, Foxx said it seemed like the problem was compounded by confusion and poor communication.
Airport workers were distributing bottled water, and Dunkin Donuts was giving out doughnuts. Chick-fil-A, which is usually closed on Sundays, opened to provide meals for travelers, according to the airports Twitter feed.
Lisa Bender of the Atlanta police department said officers were at the airport to help with crowd control and managing traffic around the airport.
At Southwest Airlines, about 70 Atlanta departures out of 120 scheduled for Sunday were canceled, an airline spokesman said in an email. United Airlines and JetBlue Airways were among carriers reporting delays or cancellations.
American Airlines reported only a handful of diversions and cancellations because the carrier does not use Atlanta as a hub, airline spokeswoman Alexis Aran Coello.
Hartsfield-Jackson, which serves 104 million passengers a year, is the worlds busiest airport, a distinction it has held since 1998.
The airport serves an average of 275,000 passengers daily, according to its website. Nearly 2,500 planes arrive and depart each day.