Eight days before Christmas and heading for one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, the busiest airport on the planet was disconnected by an apparent fire in underground electrical equipment between its huge concourses. The terminals were without electricity, the train tracks did not work. The airport was paralyzed.
The anticipated power of Georgia Power will be restored before midnight on Sunday. The airlines expected to fly again around 5 a.m. on Monday, when airport operations normally take place. Hundreds of flights have already been canceled by Monday.
The impending peak in holiday season travel adds significant new complications to full recovery.
"It's going to be hard to get everyone to where they want to go," said Robert Mann. , director of RW Mann & Company, a consultancy in the aeronautical industry.
Planes usually have a reserve of 90% to 100% at this time of year, leaving few spare seats available for stranded passengers. Airlines for America estimates that 51 million people will fly on US airlines during the 21-day vacation period from December 15 to January 4.
"There just are not many empty seats," said Mann.
And with the power cut, the bags will not be able to leave the planes on Sunday night.
In many ways, Sunday's cut was no different from a massive snowstorm blowing through the region. The difference is that ATL, the airlines and the average of 275,000 passengers who pass through the airport every day did not receive prior notice.
"Because it was a Sunday, the volume was significantly lower than it would normally be" during the week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told a news conference.
But even on a light day, Atlanta is one of the most important air transport hubs in the country.
More than 104 million passengers flew through the airport in 2016, making it the most active on the planet, according to the Airports Council International. Beijing ranked second in the busiest.
What happens in Atlanta can spread throughout the United States and around the world. About 80% of the population of the United States is on a two-hour flight from Atlanta. Delta Air Lines, the largest airport carrier, canceled 900 flights and diverted another 48.
Delta and Southwest Airlines (the second largest in Atlanta) transport about 10% of passengers there and the remaining 15% are It divides between the other US airlines and international airlines that fly to Atlanta, according to the airport.
Delta flies three out of four passengers traveling through Atlanta. Delta serves more than 200 cities from Atlanta, including some 70 internationally, with more than 1,000 departures on the airline's peak day.
The speed with which Delta recovers from the disruption will depend to a large extent on the effectiveness of the airline in the recovery of a massive distribution in its larger center. In April, wave after wave of severe electrical storms in Atlanta disrupted their operations, leaving crews and planes out of position. It took the airline days to get back on its feet.
A senior Delta operations leader called the April events "one of the most challenging recovery efforts we've seen as an airline."
The interruption is the second blow that the airline has received this year.