AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday morning, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport lost power for more than three hours, leaving passengers in the dark and flights delayed for hours.
“I’ve been at the airport since five in the morning, and I was already kind of late, because my flight was at 6:20. And then we came in, and there were no lights at the airport,” flyer Ruben told KXAN Wednesday.
“I tried calling the airline. I’m still waiting for a call back from them. And there’s a huge line made from people just like me waiting to find out if their flight was canceled or delayed,” he said.
“The lady in front of me decided she wasn’t gonna make it. So she went home. He’s trying to make his connection. I have an MRI at MD Anderson here at 11:15. They’ll take me late, I think,” Deana Kayworth said calmly while she was waiting in line.
Austin Energy attributes the outage to an underground electric equipment failure, which began around 4:30 Wednesday morning.
Because the lines near the airport are underground, it takes longer to locate the fault.
“We knew from an underground transformer the general location of that fault and where the repair needed to be made, but it required actually walking that roughly half-a-mile of line to make sure that we knew exactly where that was and get the trucks out there, So that when we did excavate, [we were] moving earth in exactly the right place,” Matt Mitchell with Austin Energy explained.
“And safely do so, because you’re dealing with a lot of heavy equipment as well. And then disconnect the power, splice into a new conduit and restore power as quickly as possible,” Mitchell added.
Austin Energy was able to restore power to 85% of AUS customers at 7:15 a.m., and then the entire airport was brought back online at about 8:03 a.m.
Mitchell said Austin Energy is investigating what exactly caused the outage and assessing how to prevent an outage like this in the future.
“If there’s more that we learn in the process of understanding what happened and exactly how to prevent it from happening again, we will absolutely take those steps to make sure nobody else, nobody wants a repeat of what happened this morning,” Mitchell explained.
Austin Energy said the airport controls its own power generators.
In a statement, AUS’ spokesperson explained these backup generators were turned on manually Wednesday morning and only provide emergency-level functions.
“These systems include ingress and egress lighting to help staff and passengers see through the dark, fire detection and alarm, the overhead PA system and security functions,” the statement read.
“Because this power failure impacted the entire airport campus, the generators had to be manually turned on, which accounts for the time between the lights going out and the auxiliary lights coming back on. The power failure was so large in scale that it required airport staff to be dispatched to the generators to manually start them up, which we did as soon as possible,” the statement continued.
AUS added the control tower is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and it has its own power supply and backup generators.
When asked online why the airport’s generators don’t provide more power like other critical infrastructure, including hospitals, AUS tweeted, “It takes A LOT of power to run the airport. The backup generators provide power to key functions to keep people safe while the experts at Austin Energy work to restore systemwide power to support passenger processing and flight activity.”
“It was a little nerve wracking to walk into the airport, pitch dark, not knowing who’s all here and what’s going on,” said Anna Wright, who was trying to fly to Greece Wednesday morning, said.
The airport said it leaned on its “airport emergency plan” Wednesday, which covers a broad range of unexpected situations and protocols to follow.
Sam Haynes, a spokesperson for the airport, said its protocol during a power outage is to boot up backup generators — so people can see enough to safely walk around or evacuate — and to coordinate with Austin Energy, should it be appropriate when an outage occurs. People were not asked to evacuate during this week’s outage because Haynes said there was no threat to people’s safety inside the airport.
The airport also tapped the Austin Police Department for help with traffic.
Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents District 6, said safety at the airport is something that’s been on the council’s radar even before this situation.
“In the last budget we actually passed direction for the city manager to put EMS units at the airport which will give an added layer of security for whenever there’s an incident there,” Kelly said.
City, state leaders already asking for answers
Kelly is one of the Austin City Council members asking for answers from both Austin Energy and the Austin airport.
“My understanding is that there will be an after-action review, and I fully expect Austin Energy to take a real good look at the underground utilities to determine what other areas of opportunity there are as we go through this expansion process,” Kelly said.
Council member Vanessa Fuentes, whose district includes the airport, echoed that sentiment saying: “We must ensure we have the redundancies needed to prevent future outages — especially with city infrastructure as critical as our airport. I’m grateful to the AUS, Austin Energy and APD staff who acted swiftly to address the situation.”
And it’s not just local leaders, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who represents Austin, said he was concerned about how long it took to restore power to the airport, and he wants to see changes made to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“I share your pain and everything that I can do on the federal end to alleviate it, I will do. I was in touch with both Austin Energy and the airport today, I will follow closely their review,” he said.