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Atlanta airport outage unlikely here, top ComEd official says

Travelers at O'Hare International Airport

Ald. Ed Burke's office would call to make sure United Maintenance's contract to provide custodial services at O'Hare International Airport was paid right away, former Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans told the Sun-Times. | AP file photo

The sort of power outage that plunged the world’s busiest airport into darkness for several hours Sunday is unlikely to occur in Chicago, a high-ranking official with ComEd said Monday.

Tim McGuire, ComEd’s senior vice president for distribution/operations, said he can’t imagine a single fire — the kind that occurred at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — causing a similar “cascading event ” at either Midway or O’Hare airports.

McGuire described the power systems feeding into both local airports as “robust,” with power coming in at both locations from multiple substations with multiple lines.

“They are not all bundled together, where one event at a single location could take them all out,” McGuire said.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation said the agency is “fully prepared” to handle a situation similar to the one that occurred in Atlanta.

“While the situation at Jackson-Hartfield International Airport has posed minimal operational impacts to Chicago’s airports, we are working with all airport partners to learn from the situation in Atlanta and to understand what, if any, additional steps can be taken to enhance our systems in Chicago,” said the aviation spokeswoman, Lauren Huffman.

“With the holiday travel season underway, we are working diligently with all airport partners to continue providing a safe and efficient experience for all of our passengers.”

Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers said in a phone interview Monday that a switch gear failed, causing a fire that then spread to cables coming in from two substations to the Atlanta airport. But he said it wasn’t clear what caused the switch gear to fail.

Power was fully restored about midnight in Atlanta. During those hours in the dark, thousands of travelers waited on planes or in the terminals. Disabled people had to be carried down stairs and escalators in the chaos. Inbound flights were diverted to other cities and outgoing flights were halted.

About five years ago, ComEd embarked on a project to upgrade the electric grid, which made improvements at O’Hare and Midway a top priority, McGuire said. Those improvements include “Smart grid” investments, allowing ComEd to monitor the system in “real time.”

Though ComEd will be hoping to learn from what happened in Atlanta, there were no immediate plans to make changes in Chicago.

“Certainly, I’ll tell you that our operators have probably moved up in their seats a little more when something like this happens at the airport,” McGuire said.

Neither American Airlines nor United Airlines reported any major impacts from the Atlanta outage.

American canceled three flights from O’Hare to Atlanta Sunday and two more flights Monday, an airline spokeswoman said. United canceled two flights early Monday and were expecting some additional “minor delays,” a United spokesman said.

Contributing: AP