Blackout at Panama Airport Strands Thousands
A prolonged power outage on Monday paralyzed Panama’s primary airport, dubbed the “Hub of the Americas,” and stranded thousands of passengers at the Tocumen International Airport and in other parts of the Americas where scheduled flights were canceled or diverted.
The power distribution system at the airport began failing after 5:00 a.m. as travelers lined up to check in for their early morning flights out of Panama. Within an hour, much of the airport plunged into darkness as the airport struggled to pinpoint the failure and restore electricity.
— El Balboa (@el_balboa) September 19, 2017
Power came back shortly before noon after the airport crew located and fixed a faulty circuit of a substation that connects a backup generator to the airport.
“The damage occurred in one of the primary circuits of substation 8 where the backup generator is connected, and every time we tried to recover the system, it would fail,” Carlos Duboy, managing director of the airport, said at a press conference.
Flight Cancellations and Diversions
As airlines dealt with frustrated travelers at the check-in counters, Copa Airlines, Panama’s flag carrier, announced it was canceling all flights that were due to arrive between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
Due to the situation @Tocumen_Aero all our flights from Panama with arrival and departure time between 10:30am-12:30pm have been canceled2/2
— Copa Airlines (@CopaAirlines) September 18, 2017
Cancellations, however, began earlier with Copa flight 193 that was due to arrive from San Jose, Costa Rica, at 9:57 a.m. At least eight other flights from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru, and the United States had also been canceled or diverted before 10:30 a.m.
Copa flight 364 from Buenos Aires, which was nearing Panama City, was diverted to Panama Pacifico International Airport (formerly the Howard Air Force Base), just west of the Bridge of the Americas. And a Copa flight from San Francisco landed in Managua, Nicaragua, instead of in Panama City.
At least four flights, from Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, had been diverted to Cali, Colombia, while an American Airlines flight from Miami was sent to San Jose, Costa Rica.
By 2:30 p.m., Copa announced it was canceling most of its flight for the rest of the day in order to “reposition [its] aircraft and crew.”
— Copa Airlines (@CopaAirlines) September 18, 2017
Stranded Passengers Shuttled to Hotels
As Copa Airlines canceled about 140 flights, it urged travelers to contact its customer service by phone or at the airport to change their itineraries without penalty. But some travelers in Canada, Brazil, and the United States said they could not get through to Copa by phone.
Your call centre in TO Canada kept dropping all my calls. Couldn’t get through at all. Now my luggage is lost! Even thought I never left yyz
— Daiana Rivas-Tello (@d_rivastello) September 18, 2017
Não consigo falar com vocês via telefone. Poderiam entrar em contato comigo via e-mail?
— Matheus Maklister (@MMaklister) September 18, 2017
Your phone number 1-800-359-2672 isn’t working for me to reschedule a flight since morning, is there another way to reach reservation desk?
— Brandon Hsu (@B__Hsu) September 18, 2017
Customers at the airport also voiced their frustrations.
False!!! Its been 8 hours and I still can’t get my new connection, this is totally out of control, more than 1000 people waiting in lines
— Serch (@sergio_search) September 19, 2017
I am still stuck here, honeymoon cancelled, now just trying to get back home. Super disappointed.
— Fishthoughts (@fishthoughts) September 19, 2017
As frustration mounted, the airport authority and airlines began announcing that it would provide transportation, lodging, and meals to the stranded passengers. About 27 city buses were used to transport them three hotels in Panama City.
— MiBus (@OficialMiBus) September 18, 2017
Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen junto con las aerolíneas cumplen con el traslado, el hospedaje y la alimentación de los pasajeros. pic.twitter.com/5q55ItFsgZ
— Aeropuerto Tocumen (@Tocumen_Aero) September 18, 2017
Perception of Panama
By some estimates, the blackout affected about 20,000 travelers both at the Tocumen airport as well as those whose flights were canceled or diverted throughout the Americas. But some observers lamented the impact the power outage would have on Panama’s image.
Tocumen sirve aprox 45,000 viajeros/día; 3 horas sin luz afectaron a aprox 20,000 personas.
Pérdida millonaria y mala imagen para Panamá.
— Alfredo Motta (@AMOTTAPTY) September 18, 2017
And one Twitter user commented that “this should not happen at the “Hub of the Americas.”
— Joelle E.S (@joelle_sw) September 18, 2017
The situation remained chaotic this morning, as thousands of passengers tried to rebook their flights out of Panama. TVN Channel 2 News reported that those travelers who don’t get a flight today may have to pay for lodging out of their own pocket.
— Alfredo Mitre (@alfredomitre) September 19, 2017