Chicago 'prepared' for outage like at Atlanta airport, officials say

Updated 12/18/2017 5:05 PM
  • Long lines form at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after a power outage Sunday in Atlanta.

    Long lines form at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after a power outage Sunday in Atlanta. Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Associated Press

Experts say Chicago can learn from the travel meltdown resulting from a power outage at the nation's busiest airport midday Sunday in Atlanta, although the impact on flights locally was minimal.

Passengers continued to face lines, delays and cancellations Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport after a fire in an underground electrical substation halted operations for about 11 hours. Eight flights at O'Hare and 14 at Midway were canceled Sunday as a result of the outage.

While the Atlanta situation posed minimal operational impact to Chicago's airports, Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said, officials are working to learn from it and determine "what, if any, additional steps can be taken to enhance our systems in Chicago."

"The Chicago Department of Aviation is fully prepared to address a situation like this if one were to occur at O'Hare or Midway," she said.

Equipment for Hartfield-Jackson's backup system was damaged in the fire, compounding the debacle.

ComEd has built-in redundancies at O'Hare and Midway to avoid similar problems, Senior Vice President for Distribution Operations Tim McGuire said.

"The difference at O'Hare is that we serve the airport from multiple substations," McGuire said. The substations, which transform high-voltage power to lower levels for consumer use, are "nowhere near each other" and power lines enter the airport by different routes, he explained.

Each of the lines carrying electricity to O'Hare has enough capacity to carry the airport on its own, McGuire said.

U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi on Monday requested that the department of aviation analyze what would happen to flights and travelers if O'Hare lost power and to provide information about backup systems.

"The power grid, albeit highly reliable, has its weak spots, and ATL experienced one such perfect-storm event," said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Professor Sheldon H. Jacobson, an aviation security expert.

Meanwhile, "there seems to be no end to the headaches facing airlines at major hubs, whether it is TSA problems, computer glitches, or a complete electrical outage," DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said.

"The most disturbing part of Sunday's outage is that it took 11 hours to restore power. We had a taste of this at O'Hare several years ago, with the FAA sabotage incident, but Sunday's outage is something that should have lasted no more than a couple hours," Schwieterman said, referring to a 2014 arson at an air traffic facility in Aurora.

"The timing of the outage was particularly unfortunate, since Sunday afternoons leading up to the holiday are dominated by pleasure travelers, many of whom have children with them."

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

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