The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Modern Fragility: One Fire Shuts Down America’s Busiest Airport for Half a Day

Yesterday’s intolerable mess at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport would be a little bit easier to accept if it had been cyber-terrorism. If ISIS or al-Qaeda or the North Koreans or someone had deliberately shut down the power and backup systems at the country’s busiest airport, we would have an outside source and an intentional action to blame. We would be discussing how to prevent the next cyber-sabotage, whether existing systems at other airports and critical infrastructure were secure enough, and how to ensure everyone knew what to do in this sort of emergency.

Instead, it appears to be the usual cascading mistakes and system failures.

Georgia Power said it believes a failure of its equipment may have started a fire that led to a massive power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport causing more than 1,000 flight cancellations Sunday, disrupting flights for travelers from around the world.

“While evaluation of the incident is ongoing, Georgia Power believes that a piece of Georgia Power switchgear located in an underground electrical facility could have failed and started a fire,” Georgia Power said in a written statement overnight after the power was restored. “This fire was located adjacent to redundant circuit cables and switching mechanisms serving the airport and those cables were damaged, resulting in the outage and loss of redundant service methods.”

“Georgia Power’s system responded properly by isolating areas where equipment wasn’t operating correctly to ensure safety and minimize damage,” the company said. “No personnel or passengers were in danger at any time.”

I’m no engineer, but I thought the whole point of having a backup power system or redundant circuit cables was that they were in a different place from the main system or cables, so that whatever interrupts the first one wouldn’t interrupt the second one.

The fire and power outage is bad enough; the inability to communicate anything of real importance to the tens of thousands of passengers in the airport and the thousands stuck on planes on the runways was much worse.

Atlanta is the heart of the US air transport system, and the disruption led to 1,180 flight cancellations to and from the airport Sunday, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.

The blackout led the Federal Aviation Administration to declare a ground stop at the airport, preventing Atlanta-bound flights in other airports from taking off and causing inbound flights to be diverted.

Inside the airport, the outage cut power in the terminals, leaving passengers stranded in the dark as they stood in line at gates and security checkpoints. An estimated 30,000 people were affected by the power outage, Reed said.

People used flashlights on their phones to see where they were going, said passenger Heather Kerwin, an Atlanta resident bound for New York.

“There were a few emergency lights on, but it was really dark — felt totally apocalyptic,” she said. “I decided to get the hell out of there.”

Some passengers told CNN that airport and airline staff offered no updates as hours passed, leaving people scanning their phones and tablets for information. Stores stopped serving food and passengers were evacuated to alleviate crowding.

Harry Reid’s Secret UFO Research Program

To a lot of people paying attention to the news Sunday, the New York Times’ scoop was that from 2007 to 2012, the Pentagon had a secret program to study UFOs.

But I feel like the story could have had a completely different emphasis: Three senators — Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens — sent $22 million in taxpayer money so Reid’s buddy Robert Bigelow could research UFOs. And no one else in the U.S. Senate was allowed to know!

Mr. Reid, who retired from Congress this year, said he was proud of the program. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” Mr. Reid said in a recent interview in Nevada. “I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before.”

None of the three senators wanted a public debate on the Senate floor about the funding for the program, Mr. Reid said. “This was so-called black money,” he said. “Stevens knows about it, Inouye knows about it. But that was it, and that’s how we wanted it.” Mr. Reid was referring to the Pentagon budget for classified programs.

Contracts obtained by The Times show a congressional appropriation of just under $22 million beginning in late 2008 through 2011. The money was used for management of the program, research and assessments of the threat posed by the objects.

The funding went to Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, which hired subcontractors and solicited research for the program.

As a plotline to The X-Files, this is awesome; in real life, this looks like a classic abuse of  budgetary authority. Just what did the taxpayers get for this $22 million sent to Harry Reid’s friend?

To hear these guys tell it, the aliens are visiting regularly, the military knows, and only a few, lonely, Fox Mulder-like officials are willing to speak about it, while everyone else proceeds in naïve denial:

The program collected video and audio recordings of reported U.F.O. incidents, including footage from a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet showing an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high speed and rotating as it moves. The Navy pilots can be heard trying to understand what they are seeing. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” one exclaims. Defense officials declined to release the location and date of the incident.

A 2009 Pentagon briefing summary of the program prepared by its director at the time asserted that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact,” and that the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered. Mr. Reid’s request for the special designation was denied.

As we say on the Three Martini Lunch, “way to go, Nevada. Way to go.”

A Generally Full-Throated Defense of The Last Jedi

Spoilers Ahead!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is, by a lot of measures, a really good movie. The grumbling seems disproportionate, and I wonder if a lot of people are irked that the sequel they saw isn’t as good as the one they’ve envisioned in their heads over the past two years.

Look, folks, if anybody’s going to be wary heading into this movie, it’s me. “Hey, Jim, great news! They’re going to return to a story that you loved in your younger years, with lots of revelations, twists, and turns, and strange and otherworldly characters, and they’re going to cast Laura Dern in a pivotal role!” “Again?”

This isn’t to say​ that​ The Last Jedi doesn’t have its flaws, so let’s get them out of the way. None of the new characters really knocked my socks off. The movie really tried to make us like and sympathize with Rose, and I’m not quite sure she earned it; for most of the movie, she feels like she’s tagging along with Finn. She’s allegedly this great engineer or mechanic but we never really see her do anything with that. (Her sister seemed a lot more compelling in her two or three minutes of screen time.) Her “love story” came out of nowhere in the final 30 minutes or so.

In a movie full of surprises, Benicio Del Toro’s character wasn’t interesting at all. It felt like he should hold up a sign saying, “I will betray you” the moment we meet him.

The Casablanca gambling planet seemed a little too recognizably earth-like; one of the things that makes Star Wars fun is the alien and outer-space version of what we recognize from earth: palaces, seedy bars, fast motorcycles. “Canto Bight” looked and felt way too much like Monte Carlo, with larger dogs for the dog races, slot machines, craps, white tuxedos, and even champagne.

I can only imagine how the big meeting between J. J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, and Rian Johnson, the director of The Last Jedi went.

J.J. Abrams: I think I’ve left you with some great story threads to pick up and some great questions to resolve. I mean, the big one, who are Rey’s parents? Is she connected to Luke, or Obi-Wan, or maybe even the Emperor?

Rian Johnson: Yeah​ . . . I​ . . . was thinking of going in a different direction.

Abrams: And Snoke, he’s so mysterious. I think you have so much to work with, in explaining where he came from and how he became so powerful with the dark side.

Johnson: Um, yeah, I might get to that, I might not.

Abrams: And when Maz Kanada looks at Finn and says, “I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people. I see your eyes. I know your eyes,” I did that so you could later reveal that Finn’s parents are someone important, maybe Lando.

Johnson: [Noncommittal grunt]

As I mentioned Friday, I don’t think there’s been another big-budget blockbuster that so many times knew what the audience expected and decided to do the opposite. Starting with Luke tossing his long-lost lightsaber, Rian Johnson decided that every time the film approached a familiar or classic “Star Wars moment,” everything would change.

We’ve seen Kylo Ren kill Han Solo, so we think he’s willing to kill his mother, Leia, too. But he hesitates! And then we get another surprise, as his hesitation doesn’t matter, as another pilot shoots instead! And then, once we’ve concluded, “​A​h, this is how Leia dies and they write around Carrie Fisher’s death​ . . . ​” she survives! And later once Kylo Ren has saved Rey, we think he’s turned “good”​ . . . but he hasn’t!

All of Poe’s plans to save the fleet backfire in his face. Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo isn’t secretly evil or incompetent. Leia awakens, and we think she’s going to help Poe; instead she stuns him! Finn and Rose’s plan to disable the First Order’s tracking device doesn’t work because the bad guys notice the implausible disguises.

The entire section with Luke training Rey acknowledges some long-denied truths ​–​ the Jedi, at least as portrayed in the prequels, were incompetent and so bound by intractable rules that they doomed themselves ​–​ and makes the important philosophical point: ​T​he dark side can be overcome but it can never be permanently vanquished because it is, in our ​E​arth-human terms, temptation. Why did Ben Solo turn to the dark side? For the same reason that seemingly good kids sometimes shoplift, join gangs, try drugs​,​ and so on. When we’re given the opportunity to do the wrong thing, sometimes we’re good at resisting it, and sometimes we aren’t.

Beyond that​ . . . ​if you didn’t enjoy Luke’ first lesson about “reaching out​,​” Rey and Kylo fighting Snoke’s guards, Holdo taking her ship to lightspeed in silence, Luke’s final appearance on the battlefield​ . . . check your pulse. The Last Jedi was the anti-Justice League; at two-and-a-half hours, every victory in the climax feels earned and nothing feels rushed.

One of the best (and funniest) aspects of The Force Awakens was how the challenge facing the main characters ​–​ how do I live up to this iconic image and these massive expectations forged by the preceding generation? ​–​ was the same challenge facing the entire cast and crew. And The Last Jedi has another fascinating human question at its core that resonates with the cast and crew facing the responsibility of continuing the story: What parts of the past do I keep, and what parts do I let go and leave behind? It’s as if everyone on screen is turning to the audience and saying, “T​his cannot run on just nostalgia; we have to forge our own path and try something new.”

The question is . . . will the audiences allow them to go in those new directions?

ADDENDA: Here it comes. From Politico: “At least four senators are urging Al Franken to reconsider resigning, including two who issued statements calling for the resignation two weeks ago and said they now feel remorse over what they feel was a rush to judgment.”

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