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Holiday travel chaos ahead after Atlanta airport outage

Thousands of people were stranded this morning at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were more than 1,000 flights were grounded just days before the start of the holiday travel rush because of a power outage that has since been restored.

More than 1,000 flights, including some to Canada, were grounded just before the start of the holiday rush

Passengers wait for the lights to return at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Sunday in Atlanta. A sudden power outage grounded scores of flights and passengers during one of the busiest travel times of the year and will take days to clear. (Steve Schaefer/Associated Press)

Thousands of people were stranded Monday morning at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where more than 1,000 flights were grounded just days before the start of the holiday travel rush because of a power outage that has since been restored.

A sudden power outage that Georgia Power said was caused by a fire in an underground electrical facility brought the airport to a standstill Sunday about 1 p.m. ET at what is considered the world's busiest airport.

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 Air Lines, with its biggest hub in Atlanta, will be hardest hit. By Sunday evening, Delta had already cancelled nearly 900 flights and another 300 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 likely will be Tuesday before Delta's operations in Atlanta return to normal, and for passengers, "it could be most of the week" because there aren't many open seats on other flights in the last week before Christmas.

Heidi Harrington, right, and her son Dillon wait to check in for their flight to New York in a dark terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Sunday. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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 travellers not to pick up their bags 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 cancelled flights — before it fully recovered.

Like Sunday's outage, that April storm hit Delta's largest hub at a busy travel time when there weren't many empty seats to accommodate customers from cancelled flights. At the time, CEO Ed Bastian vowed Delta would make "significant improvements" to its system for scheduling and tracking aircraft crews to recover more quickly from disruptions.

Other airlines also cancelled flights for the rest of Sunday. American Airlines cancelled 24 departures and an equal number of arrivals, said spokesman Ross Feinstein. The airline 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.

Long lines form at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after the power outage. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Delta passenger Emilia Duca, 32, was on her way to Wisconsin from Bogota, Colombia, when she got stuck in Atlanta. She said police made passengers who were in the baggage claim area move to a higher floor. She said restaurants and shops were closed. Vending machines weren't working.

"A lot of people are arriving, and no one is going out. No one is saying anything official. We are stuck here," she said. "It's a nightmare."

Canadians affected

A spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority told CBC News that two flights from Atlanta to Pearson International Airport have been cancelled.

Beverly MacDonald said the cancelled flights are Delta Flight DL1976 and Air Canada Flight AC7541.

She said the rest of the scheduled flights connecting Atlanta to Pearson appear to be on time. 

Some passengers said there was a lack of information from airport officials and little help from first responders to get the disabled and the elderly through the airport without the use of escalators and elevators.

Accessibility problems

"They had these elderly people, handicapped people lined up in wheelchairs," said stranded passenger Rutia Curry. "The people were helpless, they can't get down the stairs. It was just a nightmare."

Passenger James Beatty said there was no real method for evacuation.

"I mean there was 40 or 50 people per the terminal area that were confined to wheelchairs and some that couldn't get through the airport very well, some of them actually couldn't walk and there was no plan at all to get them out of here without any power."

Beatty said passengers carried those who used wheelchairs down stairs.

Passengers wait for the lights to come back on. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration 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 served as U.S. transportation secretary under then President Barack Obama. Foxx tweeted he was among the many travellers stuck for hours on a plane on the tarmac.

"Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today," he tweeted, adding there was "no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. NONE!"

In another tweet, Foxx said it seemed as if the problem was "compounded by confusion and poor communication."

Once he was off the plane, Foxx tweeted he hoped to rent a car to drive to Charlotte, N.C., to catch a flight Monday morning.

This is the worst experience I've ever had at an airport.- Jeff Smith, stranded passenger

That wasn't enough to comfort Pittsburgh resident Jeff Smith, 46, who ended up stuck in a plane on the tarmac for three hours after it landed.

"This is the worst experience I've ever had at an airport," he said.

Sara Melillo and her husband, Greg Presto, were travelling from Kenya, where they live, to Pittsburgh to spend Christmas with his family when they were stuck on the tarmac for six hours. The couple had made stops in Nairobi and Amsterdam and landed shortly after the lights went out in Atlanta.

Melillo said the pilot didn't have a lot of information for the travellers but the plane had air conditioning and attendants offered water and juice a few times. She described the Delta terminal as "big chaos" with not enough customer service for the hundreds of people trying to find a flight to their next destination and a place to sleep for the night.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport serves an average of 275,000 passengers daily, according to its website. Nearly 2,500 planes arrive and depart each day. (Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

With her new boarding pass handwritten and her bags still stuck on a plane, Melillo was hopeful that she and her husband would be able to get a flight in the morning to Pittsburgh, she said as she waited for an Uber ride to a hotel. But in a Monday morning email, Melillo told The Associated Press the morning flight had been rescheduled to the evening and they were going to the airport to try to get a different flight.

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 travellers, according to the airport's Twitter feed.

Police help with crowd control

Officer 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 cancelled, 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, has been the world's busiest airport since 1998, according to trade group Airports Council International. 

The airport serves an average of 275,000 passengers daily, according to its website. Nearly 2,500 planes arrive and depart each day.

With files from CBC News.