I was scheduled to fly out of Hartsfield at 4:10pm on Sunday, December 17, 2017. I was returning to Las Vegas after spending a few days with family and friends, as well as a trip to the two North Carolina casinos. I’ll write a trip report for the Harrah’s Cherokee visits soon.
I grew up in Atlanta. I’ve had many bad travel experiences at Hartsfield. None were anywhere near this level of debacle.
Rental Car Tram Down
I arrived at the airport rental car return around 1:30pm. The tram to the airport wasn’t working. The rental car employees did not know why. The rental car complex had power. There were about 1,000 people stranded there. Shuttles to the terminal were promised. I only saw two. There wasn’t any chance this was going to be the way to go.
I found someone willing to take me to the airport for $20. It’s 1.7 miles away with no feasible way to walk there. I accepted the offer.
The driver couldn’t get me to the airport because of the gridlock. I decided to walk the rest of the way. On the way there, I found out that the airport had lost power.
Arriving to Dark Airport
I arrived at the north terminal baggage claim. It was crowded, but calm. The people there were waiting on bags. The only lighting was the sun. I walked towards ticketing to see if there was any news over there. It was so crowded in that area that I could not get through it. There were thousands of people in lines, but most airlines had no gate agents that I could see.
The only reason there is an open area in front of me in the picture is because police were preventing people from blocking the outside door to the left.
I decided to go to the security area to see how bad that was. I guess that there were probably 5,000 people in the north entrance. There are two other security lines I didn’t manage to get close enough to assess.
I went to the restroom. Emergency lights worked in there. There was no water. You can imagine how disgusting it was.
I returned to the baggage claim area at the end of the MARTA station. I would go outside and return. It was too cold outside and too hot inside.
Most Travelers Remained Calm
Most people were taking the situation well during the first couple of hours. There were a few heated exchanges. As time went on, it got more crowded, and the situation started to feel like it could get out of control. Tempers were flaring, but it was still calm compared to what I would have imagined if I was not there.
Some people were able to make cell phone calls. Most could not. Nobody had data. Texting worked, but often with delays.
Airport employees vanished. Management did nothing to relay updates about the power outage. Police did not have any news. I decided that the longer I stayed at Hartsfield, the more likely the chaos was going to get ugly. The number of angry people grew by the minute.
The daylight was the only thing keeping it from being completely dark. I knew that this would not be a good place to be when the sun went down.
There wasn’t anywhere to go. Traffic was gridlocked because there was no traffic control as police were inside keeping order. Passengers reported that the parking deck gates didn’t work so people left cars on the curb. People that wanted to drive away could not because the gates were closed. The taxi line had hundreds or maybe thousands of people in it, yet there were few cabs, likely because they couldn’t get there. There was no data to order Uber, though it seems clear they wouldn’t have been able to get there anyway.
I discovered that MARTA was operating. That would have been something the airport should have been going around telling people. I guess that would have required employees, most of which seemed to have disappeared.
After three hours in the chaos, I decided to give up and get out of there. It took about two hours from the time I bought my subway ticket to get to the North Springs MARTA station where my mother, whose house I left before going to the airport, picked me up.
After that long day, I decided to walk to the Crabapple Tavern for a couple of drinks and Sunday Night Football. Humorously, the tavern closed before the football game was over. Living in Las Vegas, that was something I found odd.
My wife rebooked my flight while I dealt with my escape from Hartsfield. I am on a flight that leaves Atlanta today (Monday) at 8:35pm. It is showing as on time. I’m not confident that will happen.
I Was Lucky, Others Had Worse Experiences
I feel lucky that I didn’t make it through security or get stuck in a tram or plane. It could have been much worse.
On MARTA, I heard stories of people in wheelchairs stranded in concourses and tram lobbies. Calls for rescues from trams and elevators were coming over the police radio. The tram atrium was overflowing because the escalators were not working. At the tavern, there were people that were stuck on a plane for 5.5 hours and had quite a journey once they were finally released from the plane.
All of these are nightmare scenarios that make me feel fortunate. I usually walk to my concourse at Hartsfield. I’m definitely doing that from now on, if I ever fly here again. Next time, I’m going to seriously consider flying into Chattanooga or Greenville.
Atlanta Should Be Embarrassed About How This Was Handled
Accidents happen. That wasn’t the problem. The issue is the lack of information being passed onto passengers. It’s clear now that Georgia Power knew that it wasn’t going to be able to quickly restore power. Why did the airport not tell people this? Passengers kept arriving and those stuck there stayed when it was obvious to airport officials that Hartsfield would not reopen Sunday.
There’s also the obvious issue with a problem at a single point being able to shut down the entire airport. The tram to the rental car lot that failed is 2.5 miles from the fire. It seems impossible to think that there is proper redundancy for that to happen. Baggage claim is a mile away from the fire. It should also have its own power. It’s clear there were not proper generators. There’s no excuse for not having a generator for water pumps to ensure that bathrooms worked properly, or for elevators and trams to prevent people from being trapped for hours.
Hartsfield officials needed to go through the airport alerting travelers that operations were closed for the day when that was known, especially since there was no cell or data service. Alerting people that MARTA was fully operational would have been another plus that would have thinned the crowd. They did none of this and the world’s busiest airport’s reputation is forever damaged because of it.