Austin-Bergstrom International Airport lost power before dawn Wednesday, leading to canceled flights and frustrated flyers.
But by 7:30 am, the lights started to come back on at the Austin airport’s main terminal, after a two-and-a-half-hour power outage grounded flights during the facility’s busiest time of day.
Internet service also was restored, which means the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints can resume screening passengers.
Austin Energy said in an email that underground equipment malfunctioned around 4:30 am, leading to the outage. Electricians used fault indicators—devices that light up to indicate a circuit issue—to isolate the cause of the problem.
Crews completed repairs and restored power to the airport around 8 am According to the Austin Energy spokesperson Matthew Mitchell, crews are continuing to evaluate the issue to identify any changes we may need to make in the future.
“Anytime there’s an outage we try to figure out, is that problem repeatable? And if so, how can we put safeguards and redundancies in place to ensure that that doesn’t happen again,” Mitchell said. “That standard procedure when you have an outage, but especially for one for one like this, you look at it and say ‘okay, how can we avoid this in the future?'”
As a safety precaution, the airport shut down the roads to the terminal to prevent new passengers from arriving to a building with only the minimal power offered by an emergency backup generator. This led to traffic congestion on Texas 71 southeast of Austin by the airport’s exit. Roads were reopened about 9:45 am and the ground stop — which halted all flights — has been lifted, according to the airport.
Haynes said once the airport is operating normally again, the next step is to work with airlines to get flights out.
“Airlines are going to have to recover their operation and get flights, rescheduled passengers rebooked,” she said. “For anyone with a flight later today, please reach out directly to your airlines and work with them to reschedule you if your flight got canceled or delayed.”
Just before 5 am, power went out inside the main Barbara Jordan Terminal, which serves tens of thousands of passengers every day, and roads into the airport were blocked off, causing massive delays and backups on Texas 71.
No flights were allowed to depart as airport and Austin Energy crews scrambled to restore power. Restaurants with locations inside the airport, including Salt Lick Barbecue and Taco Deli handed out free food to passengers who were stuck in the terminal.
“We are currently investigating a power outage at the airport. All power lines near the airport are underground,” Austin Energy tweeted around 6 am “Our crews are on-site assessing the situation. Currently, we do not have an estimated time of restoration . We will provide updates as they became available.”
Gary Susswein, a former American-Statesman staffer, tweeted from inside the main terminal: “No power at #abia this morning. Long lines. Dark, warm terminal. Let’s see how this day goes for travel and for Texas.”
Another traveler, Randy Denzer, who is vice president of the Austin Firefighters Association, had planned to visit his sick mother in Ohio on Wednesday. He decided to wait at the gate he was supposed to fly out of early Wednesday and see if his flight was still listed, when the screens eventually turned back on.
“Even with the power turned back on, nobody knows what gate to go to right now,” Denzer said. “Not only do we not know what gate to go to, when you go to a gate the poor people working that gate don’t know what gate you’re supposed to go to. They don’t know if the plane sitting there is actually still going to the right place.
“This terminal is in complete chaos right now,” he continued.
Denzer described the morning outage as “eerie.”
“There were thousands of people in the pitch black. You had a couple of battery-powered blue signs and every once in a while folks that worked in the terminal would come through with a flashlight,” he said. “But, other than that, it was just quiet with alarms going off in the distance.”
For Schinia Coorey, her husband and their 18-month-old son the day started early with 4 am arrival to the airport.
Then their flight via Singapore Airlines headed for Sri Lanka at 7:45 am was cancelled, and so was the next flight at 9:00 am
“We’re just stuck, we don’t know what to do,” Coorey said.
The family lives in Leander and is trying to visit Sri Lanka, Coorey’s home country, for the first time together. Since the cancellations early this morning, the airline refunded half of the family’s fare, but Coorey and her husband are still stuck trying to buy an additional ticket due to a clerical error with their first reservation.
“I’m just stressed and can’t really think of anything, we didn’t bring any food, water, we haven’t had anything. We are just tired. All I want to do is go to my country and spend time with my family,” Coorey said “We’ve been here for like three hours with my son, thank god he was asleep the whole time. … I just want to go and see my parents, I’m going to Sri Lanka after three years and it’s the first time taking him to my country.”
Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who has been vocal over the past six months about improving the passenger experience at the Austin airport, called the disruption to travelers and drivers on nearby roads Wednesday “truly intolerable.”
“With soaring demand, our airport faces many challenges, but the source of this morning’s horrible chaos appears to have been an external power cut,” he said in a statement. “Following its thorough investigation, Austin Energy must act to ensure a fully functional backup system so that this never reoccurs.”
This is the second major disruption at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in as many months.
Last month, the airport was evacuated on Aug. 10 after airport officials said a fire alarm went off in the main Barbara Jordan terminal, creating significant delays for passengers who were forced to wait outside the terminal and faced long lines back through the security checkpoints when the airport reopened.
The alarm was triggered by a water line break outside the building where planes park to load and unload passengers, according to airport spokesperson Sam Haynes.
After the fire alarm was canceled, passengers reentered the building and were rescreened through security. However, some travelers said they faced long lines and delays getting through the airport because of the evacuation.
Before the alarm incident, the airport has been wrestling with crowding issues this year as the facility struggles to accommodate growing demand for travel.
Over the Labor Day weekend, Austin-Bergstrom expected between 27,000 and 33,000 passengers to depart each day, airport spokesperson Bailey Grimmett told the Statesman last week. Anything over 27,000 people is considered a busy day. It was not yet known how many travelers were in the airport on Wednesday.
“We used to say Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays are the busiest days, but what we’re seeing is peak travel days are no longer really a circumstance. Every day is a busy day,” Haynes said last week.