Atlanta Airport Power is Back – Avoid Atlanta Airport! – as Delta May Face Fines

Atlanta airport electricity was restored around midnight Sunday night after an outage that lasted 11 hours. After around 1000 flights were cancelled at the airport, many travelers simply stayed even though MARTA was running.

Always buy your tickets with a premium credit card that offers trip delay and cancellation coverage if you can it’s great to grab a hotel — take transit into the city if you must — and send the bill to your card company. That’s far better than the shelter the city offered stranded passengers at the convention center.

People reportedly lined up for TSA checkpoints after midnight to secure preferential places in line for when screening lanes opened at 3:30 a.m.

The Mayor of Atlanta says an underground fire damaged substations serving the airport, that the fire took out the primary and redundant system, suggesting that the redundancy may not have been well-designed. The cause of the fire is still the subject of speculation at this point.

Bear in mind that the Mayor fired the airport’s general manager a year and a half ago and suggestions at the time were that the airport GM was insufficiently corrupt in airport contracting procedures for the Mayor’s preferences. The US attorney has pursued corruption charges over City of Atlanta contracting this year.

Atlanta Remains a Mess – Stay Away

As I advised yesterday power back on does not mean normal operations.

  • Around 50 Delta planes diverted to other airports.
  • Flights to Atlanta were simply cancelled
  • Crews may have gone illegal, or at least worked beyond schedule, and will need additional rest before flying again

Planes and crew are out of position, not ready to fly. Delta won’t even let unaccompanied minors near Atlanta.

Hundreds of flights for Monday are cancelled already. More will be cancelled. Delta says their operation will be back to normal by afternoon. That depends on the definition of ‘normal’.

Big Fines May Be in Delta’s Future

As I told CNBC’s Leslie Josephs,

“Any flights that exceed the tarmac delay rule will start running up big numbers,” said Gary Leff, a travel expert who writes the View from the Wing blog. He added that compensation given to travelers could be used to lower fines.

There are plenty of traveler reports of long tarmac delays, up to 7 hours, but there will be official data on each flight and individuals can certainly exaggerate their delays when frustrated. Force majeure events in themselves don’t excuse $27,500 fines per passenger for exceeding three hours.

In fact long tarmac delays are generally caused by situations outside of an airline’s control — weather, lack of available gates at the airport — but they’re held responsible nonetheless.

There has to be a safety, security, or or air traffic control reason not to return to the gate or other disembarkation point within 3 hours. Inoperative jetbridges is not such a reason. (Even where a safety issue may exist, the DOT has in the past considered whether the airline has taken sufficient steps to avoid or mitigate the issue.)

On the airport’s Facebook page there were stories of passengers deplaned onto the apron, standing outside the in the rain, to avoid tarmac delay fines.

The Department of Transportation has discretion “to consider the totality of the circumstances” and no doubt Delta will argue against fines, we do not know yet how the current administration — Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao was a former board member of Northwest Airlines – will take claims of mitigation. The Obama DOT was fairly unforgiving.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. But how can hundreds of flights be cancelled when Delta’s CEO said just last week that only weather can cause significant cancellations?

  2. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

    We at Delta value all of our passengers and have decided that to make things right we will credit each passenger affected today with 1000 free SkyMiles. These can be used towards a light domestic beer, wine cooler, or miniature can of Soda.

    Please verify by faxing us a copy of your original purchase receipt, your boarding pass, your social security card, and a strand of hair. You must also agree to a simple demand that you no longer refer to SkyMiles as SkyPesos ever again.

    Compassionately yours,
    Delta CEO and Boardmembers

  3. Delta isn’t going to pay any DOT fines. If you read 75 FR 32318 – ENHANCING AIRLINE PASSENGER PROTECTIONS, you’ll see:

    “An assurance that, for domestic flights, the U.S. carrier will not permit an aircraft at a medium or large hub-airport to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless the pilot-in-command determines there is a safety-related or security-related impediment to deplaning passengers, or Air Traffic Control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations”

    No doubt DL will (probably successfully) argue that the lack of any power at the airport was a safety issue, and that the requirement of deboarding 60+ planes with airstairs created a security and safety related impediment, disrupting airport operations.

    Hopefully, instead of DOT fines padding the government, passengers will get compensated at least as much as DL would have had to pay

  4. Feel terrible for the passengers caught up in this, and even for some of the employees who are no doubt sincerely trying to help.

    For Delta corporate clowns, not so much. Also some of the stories of TSA goons behavior. Maybe something good will come of it – restoring the interline (?) agreements for example. Would be interesting to know how major European or Asian airlines would try to deal with something like this.

    Thanks Gary L for posting again on this … seems other bloggers want to pretend it didn’t happen (bad for bidness, i guess)

  5. @Nick, I note the safety, security and ATC exceptions in the post.

    And I don’t actually think they SHOULD be fined, in fact a great example of the perverse consequence of this rule is passengers reporting being deplaned out into the cold and not allowed to go anywhere, so that Delta can avoid fines, that certainly wasn’t BETTER.

    Reading previous DOT rulings on tarmac delay fines, it seems that they would (in the past) (1) blame the airline for lack of contingency planning for this in conjunction with the airport, (2) suggest that while safety may have been an issue given the volume of planes it would have been possible to evacuate some that were not evacuated, and (3) suggest that taking some passengers out of planes and onto the apron, if that’s accurate, it’s unlikely safer and suggestive that Delta believed the safety exception may not have applied.

    I could see the Obama DOT reducing the fine but unlikely eliminating it. The current DOT may very well take a different view. But they’ll have to investigate the case and come out with a ruling which will be public.

  6. Flew out this morning on a 7:25 Delta flight:
    TSA Pre-Check was a 6 minute wait at 6:00 AM
    Trains not running
    Many restaurants only serving beverages, no food.

    Despite heavy fog, departed on time

  7. Delta has nothing to fear in terms of compensation to passengers.

    The way their ceo has been sucking up to trump, it’s obvious that this president’s corrupt administration will find a way out for delta.

    As for the deplorables trapped on the planes, they voted for him so shouldn’t really complain.

  8. This is not the 1950s when a plan can safely put people out on the tarmac and then get them up to the second level of an airport with OUT security there. Ever see the idiots boarding EasyJet? They do it all the time and have problems. Americans have not walked up or down a set of stairs in years never mind walk on a tarmac between the lines without getting lost. They would get off at Gate A1 and end up at gate C 45.

    The next thing would be FOD Foreign Object Debris would be allover the runway and tarmac. Since they are outside they would also light up since it is the “smoking section”

  9. Having recently been on a delayed flight where the “tarmac rule” forced us back to the gate, I am reminded of the unintended bad consequences of that rule. I would think the new blood at the DOT would revisit it. It’s obviously a tricky question because, without significantly penalties, I am certain that some airline at some point will do something very stupid and leave pax on a delayed aircraft for an eternity. The question is whether more pax are hurt than helped, though.

    In this case, it would seem rather ridiculous to fine DL for circumstances that were obviously completely beyond their control. A fine would simply be spiteful, absent any evidence that they could have done a significantly better job getting pax off of aircraft under the circumstances.

  10. I get that you hate everything Delta but they won’t face fines here. 1. It was out of their control. 2. The clock stops when an aircraft requests priority return to a gate.

  11. @ian they may not face fines as i observe but “out of their control” has nothing whatsoever to do with it. in fact events beyond the control of the airline are pretty much the only time when tarmac delays extend past 3 hours and fines are imposed.

  12. @iahphx – the tarmac delay rule is a bad rule which creates consequences worse than it solves. but “completely beyond their control” was not an excuse under the last administration’s DOT. that’s why i think it will be interesting to what what the DOT does here.

  13. “suggesting that the redundancy may not have been well-designed”


    “suggestions at the time were that the airport GM was insufficiently corrupt in airport contracting procedures for the Mayor’s preferences”


    I’ve avoided this airport for 15 years and will continue to do so.

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