Take the busiest time of the day, during the busiest day of the week, at the world's busiest airport. Add a relatively small electrical outage. And you've got a recipe for some serious trouble.
That was the story Friday at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when a small, 6:30 a.m. fire or short circuit --- officials are still investigating the exact cause --- in a ramp-level electrical closet knocked out power to Concourse C.
Dozens of flights were canceled, dozens more were delayed and thousands of passengers got very long layovers in a very crowded airport, already swelled by travelers boarding planes for the three-day Veterans Day weekend.
"I guess I'll just buy a book and wait it out," said Domino Gourley, who missed her connecting flight to Jacksonville because of the outage. "What else can you do?"
Gourley was supposed to leave Atlanta at 9:15 a.m. However, her AirTran flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta was delayed because of the outage. She missed her Atlanta connection as a result. By mid-morning, the best she could do was book a 5 p.m. flight to Orlando where she was depending on friends to drive over from Jacksonville to pick her up.
The problem primarily affected Orlando-based AirTran Airways, which has about two-thirds of its Atlanta operation --- its largest hub --- based on Concourse C. The outage shut down 22 gates on the concourse for four hours and forced AirTran to shift operations to Concourse D, where it operates 11 gates. Incoming flights were canceled or delayed. And the problems began to mushroom.
AirTran canceled 48 flights, while Delta Connection carrier ASA canceled 30. Many more were delayed. The concourse was not evacuated during the outage, and emergency generators kept some systems functioning.
By 10:40 a.m. or so, when power was fully restored, the crowd trying to get to the AirTran customer service desk on Concourse C was a lengthening line of discontent, and travelers' patience was wearing thin. Many used cellphones to attempt re-booking before they reached the desk.
"I'll be here for hours it looks like," said a frustrated Derrick Millhouse, 23, of Milwaukee, who was on the way to see his girlfriend. "This is the first time I've flown AirTran, and it might be the last."
Millhouse's connecting flight to San Francisco was scrubbed and he was near the back of a re-booking line hundreds of passengers deep.
"We really don't know what's going on," said Jackie Flynn, an AirTran passenger from Michigan whose connecting flight to Florida was canceled. "They're trying to get me on an afternoon flight, but I have no idea if I'll make it."
AirTran workers scrambled to accommodate fliers, and even added a "make up" flight to Florida late in the day.
"If there is a silver lining to this, it's that it happened early in the day," said AirTran spokesman Dave Hirschman. "We think we can accommodate everyone affected by this by the end of the day."
Joel Crochet and her 5-year-old daughter, Breanna, relaxed near the frantic AirTran counter during the height of the chaos. Breanna sat on her small, pink carry-on suitcase. Her mom sipped a soft drink. They had missed their flight to Indiana, and AirTran officials were trying to get them on the next one out.
"Everyone is doing the best they can," Crochet said. "It just doesn't pay to get stressed."
* After a 6:30 a.m. Friday fire or short circuit at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, AirTran canceled 48 flights, while Delta Connection carrier ASA canceled 30. Many more were delayed.
* Power was fully restored by 10:40 a.m. Friday, and most fliers were accommodated by Friday evening. Airport officials advice passengers to check the status of their flights before leaving for the airport.