The power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport that pulled the plug on thousands of travelers' plans Sunday a week before Christmas could be a $30 million headache for Delta Airlines, which has its hub there, according to estimates.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at a news conference that some 30,000 passengers at the airport were affected, but airline data analysts say that was just a fraction of the total number of travelers whose plans were snarled.
Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper.com, estimated that roughly 209,000 people had their trips disrupted, given the number of flights scheduled to either arrive or depart during the period when the power was out and the "average load factor," or percentage of seats on a plane that are full.
"That number's probably conservative," he added. "This is the busiest airport in the U.S. and obviously it's a busy time of year."
This incident could be a P.R. headache for some time at an airport known for both its high traffic and efficiency.
While investigators have not yet determined what caused the fire, both the airport and the utility, Georgia Power, were criticized for having backup infrastructure close to the affected transformer.
"That immediately means the backup system was not redundant because you had a single point of failure," said Henry Harteveldt, president and travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. "It's a very chaotic environment for everyone there... I think the airport let a lot of people down yesterday."
A representative from the airport did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokesman for Delta said in an email, "We're focused on assisting our customers and the recovery of our operations."
"Delta is being quite — almost unbelievably — generous, covering hotels, since this is appears not to be a problem of their making or under their control," airline consultant Robert W. Mann said via email, but he added that the logistics of re-accommodating passengers still could take a while, since full planes means fewer seats available for rebooking.
"If we've only got a few extra seats on all these planes to absorb this many people in a one week period, it's going be a big challenge," Surry said.
Expert say it could take up most of the rest of the week to get all the backlogged passengers where they need to go. Harteveldt said Delta might be able to add flights or swap in bigger planes to transfer stranded passengers, although this would depend on logistics like gate availability at destination airports, and having aircraft and crew in the right places.
Delta is allowing passengers traveling to, from or through Atlanta to rebook without penalty through Friday.
"It's going to be a significant bill," Surry predicted, but some did point out a silver lining for the airline.
"The good news, in particular for Delta, is that this is not a Delta-caused problem," Harteveldt said. "Travelers have long memories."