Imagine your family’s annual game of Risk. Put it on an actually global scale. Add in consequences far more dire than hurt feelings if your strategy doesn’t work perfectly. And now you have a taste of what the men and women stationed at Atlanta’s airport have the joy of playing.
Today, that game involves figuring out how to reunite thousands of passengers with their luggage and how to get planes, crews, maintenance staff, in-flight meals, and fueling trucks where they need to be, all the while dealing with the ripple effects of an unprecedented outage. The men and women doing this work wouldn’t look out of place directing a NASA mission, surrounded by massive screens conveying reams of data, poring over impenetrable spreadsheets, and issuing commands into phone headsets.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport, handling more than 2,500 flights and 250,000 passengers every day, connecting to 225 cities around the world. And on Sunday, at 1 pm local time, it went dark. A total power failure took out lights, computers, and flight information screens. Escalators jarred to a stop; the shuttle between terminals stopped running; jet bridges froze in place; and passengers spent 11 hours in the dark, using their phones as flashlights.
Airlines ultimately canceled more than 1,000 flights on Sunday. Planes destined for Atlanta that hadn’t taken off yet stayed put, and some of those already in the air diverted to other airports. Those that did make it to Hartsfield-Jackson landed in limbo, with passengers unable to get off for hours.
“It was so strange to be stuck on the plane for six hours, with fire trucks and first responders around us, lights flashing, but nothing happening,” says WIRED reporter Andy Greenberg, caught in the mess. Inside the terminal, cell signals were weak or nonexistent, making it even tougher to figure out what was happening or to make alternate plans like finding a hotel room or renting a car.
By midnight, Georgia Power had restored power to the most essential supplies. The local utility blames the outage on underground switchgear that failed and caught fire. It looks like the blaze also took out the nearby backup cables and switches serving the airport, but the investigation is just getting started.
Whatever the cause, airlines are left cleaning up the mess today. Delta, which uses Atlanta as its global operations hub, accounts for 75 percent of the airport’s traffic. Today, staff at the airline’s Operations and Customer Center, which resembles a NASA mission control center, are taking the lead in getting operations back to normal. The airline has nixed another 400 flights today, many of them “balance cancellations,” where an outbound flight couldn’t leave yesterday, so there’s no plane to operate the inbound leg today.
Three hundred specialists are monitoring everything from weather to air traffic control information, and can dig into the data to figure out the location not just of every single plane but of every single customer. At the front of the room, giant screens display information critical to most job functions, but each desk has specialized info, like detailed weather maps, updates from international airports, and maintenance requests from pilots.
Luckily for Delta, the Operations and Customer Center didn’t lose power, according to spokesperson Michael Thomas. In fact, it looked pretty calm. These folks are used to dealing with problems. The machine is so well adapted to ironing out chaos that by this evening or tomorrow the airline expects operations to be nearly normal.
“During disruptions like yesterday, or significant weather events, we have a contingent of operational folks who come up to supplement the regularly scheduled teams,” Thomas says. “They’re there as extra hands to flight by flight, or even customer by customer, see how to come up with solutions.” That can mean rebooking connections before a plane even lands, if it’s significantly delayed; identifying where pilots are going to be needed tomorrow, and getting them on flights there today; or calling in extra cabin crew when the men and women working go over their allowed hours.
The power outage poses an especially tricky problem. Unlike a storm, it hits without warning, so airlines can’t start this work days in advance. And if you think waiting out a delay in an airport bar stinks, try it when you can’t even see in the restrooms, or buy refreshments, or recharge your overtaxed phone. Although reports describe the airport like a post-apocalyptic scene from The Walking Dead (a show fittingly set in Atlanta), with little to no information to share, they also say passengers were for the most part calm and good tempered. No panicked rush for exits, no zombie feeding frenzy.
And that may be the most important advice to take from this, if you’re traveling over the holidays. Flying at peak times is always tough, and can always get crazy. The advice remains the same: Get to the airport early, take some snacks, and be ready to do a lot of waiting. For Atlanta, operations should be fully back to normal by next week—just in time for the Christmas rush.
The Logistics of Flight
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