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Power Restored At Atlanta's Airport, Travelers' Plans In Disarray

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Atlanta's international airport is trying to recover today after power went out for 10 hours on Sunday. Some 30,000 passengers were stranded. An electrical fire started a ripple effect, and it is hard to overstate the amount of air traffic that was affected. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE reports.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson is considered the busiest airport in the world. You can hear that in this recording of radio traffic from right before the power went out on Sunday. The audio comes from liveatc.net.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: 1243 turn left on November. Hold for attachment (unintelligible).

KAUFFMAN: But without electricity for computers and communications, the traffic slowed way down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) zero, niner, zero, four.

KAUFFMAN: That's when the chaos began. Passengers sat in planes for hours. More than 1,000 flights to and from Atlanta were canceled. Travelers stranded in dark terminals were uncomfortable and agitated.

CHARLIE SHEBOY: It's laughable.

KAUFFMAN: Charlie Sheboy was trying to get to Cleveland for the holidays. He says the incident makes the entire city of Atlanta look bad.

SHEBOY: Yet they brag, oh, we're an international city, the place too busy to hate - the place too stupid to function.

KAUFFMAN: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed apologized for the power outage. Reed says the fire that caused it also hit part of the power grid that was meant to serve as a sort of backup.

KASIM REED: The intensity of the heat and the fire impacted the switch that would have allowed the redundancy to kick in.

KAUFFMAN: The utility company Georgia Power says the source of the fire could be a faulty switch. It all led to what Henry Harteveldt calls a serious injury to the U.S. airline system.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: Atlanta is a major hub.

KAUFFMAN: Harteveldt is a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. He says Delta makes 70 percent of flights in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. In a statement, the airline says the hundreds of cancellations it has made are in effort to reset its operations. Harteveldt says with Christmas so close, getting back to normal is more complicated.

HARTEVELDT: You have full flights that are even fuller, meaning less wiggle room for airlines to recover and get these stranded people where they need to be.

KAUFFMAN: Harteveldt says he expects schedules will be back to normal later this week, just in time for the craziness of Christmas travel.

For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.