Return to Transcripts main page


Senator John McCain will be missing next week's vote on Republican tax vote; Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport has no power; CNN Heroes reveals tonight; Aired 7:00-8:00p ET

Aired December 17, 2017 - 19:00   ET



[19:00:32] ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Top of the hour. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York.

Let's get right to the breaking news. A major travel emergency unfolding right now, and this is going to be felt coast to coast by everybody holding a plane ticket. The trouble is here. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the busiest airport on the earth. That airport is in a dark right now, no power. The electricity suddenly went off around six hours ago and it has not come back on.

That means since about 1:00 this afternoon eastern time, no planes have taken off from Atlanta. The airport is full of people planning to pass through Atlanta today. Obviously, these images from a little bit earlier. We now know they have brought in light, a construction lights, to help keep people able to see because it's obviously gotten dark there. And one of our producers from D.C., Betsy Klein, is actually among those stuck on a Delta plane right now at Atlanta's airport.

Betsy, what are you and other passengers now being told?

BETSY KLEIN, CNN PRODUCER (on the phone): Hey, Ana. So I'm on one of 92 planes stuck on the tarmac. We have all landed after the power went out. Because there is no power we can't get --. They are telling us that they are starting slowly to unload these places with (INAUDIBLE). There are five sets of those. So it's very slow and we are pretty far back in the line.

The pilot told us it's going to be quite a while before we will able to be deplaned. He said at least two hours. He also says he doesn't know what's going to happen to us once we are deplaned, where we will go in the airport or what resources will be available to us. He also said it will probably take a number of days before we can get back to normal. So we are in it for the long haul.

We have totally run out of water here. They have asked us kindly not to flush the toilets. But otherwise, you know, everyone seems to be in a relative good spirits considering everyone is calm. They gave us beverages service a couple of hours ago and now we are just waiting.

CABRERA: Wow. It does not sound good, Betsy. How long have you been stuck there so far? KLEIN: We landed at 2:15. So we are coming up on five hours and a

couple of minutes.

CABRERA: Wow. And now the pilot is telling you it could be two hours more before you can get off. Have you heard anything more about what led to this situation?

KLEIN: It's sort of unclear to us. It sounds like there was some sort of a construction issue. But, you know, as far as what they are able to tell us, they say there's still no power at the airport and there is nothing, you know, we can do.

I mean, luckily for us, you know, there are people are stuck on trams in the airport. We are on a plane with power. My phone is charging. We have air conditioning, you know. We all have basic needs. We have toilets. But, you know, we are sort of lucky in that sense. The problem is we just don't know how much longer we are going to be on this plane.

CABRERA: Right. And you said people are in pretty good spirits still?

KLEIN: All things considered. I don't think there's going to be a mutiny any time soon. I think everyone sort of understands that, you know, this isn't something that Delta has done to us. That just, you know, we all have to wait and hopefully we will get off soon.

CABRERA: We will be in touch with you, Betsy. I hope so too. Keep up that positive energy. What else can you do at this time? Well, let's get to the bottom of what happened. Thanks again.

Let's bring in CNN's Kaylee Hartung now who is also at the airport, outside the airport which as you can see is dark behind her.

Kaylee, you are now hearing a rough estimate about when the power could be restored and what may have happened?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, Georgia power now saying they expect to have power restored to the Atlanta airport around midnight. We just received this statement to say that Georgia power believe the issue may have involved a fire which caused extensive damage in a Georgia power underground electrical facility. They say the fire was safely extinguished by fire crews before Georgia power can enter the area to assess the damages and study the damages and began repairs. The event impacted not only underground facilities but also substations serve in the airport. And while the cause is not yet known, Georgia power system responded by isolating areas where the equipment wasn't operating correctly to ensure safety and minimize damage. No personnel or passengers were in danger at any time they say.

So Ana, midnight now. The deadline Georgia power is really giving itself to restore power to the Atlanta airport.

I spoke with United pilot a little bit ago. And he told me he was prepared to not be back to work for another 24 to 36 hours. So it will be interesting to see if Georgia power can hit this midnight deadline that they are now saying they expect to have power back up.

[19:05:14] CABRERA: Again, that's five hours so from now.

Kaylee, I know you have been talking to people there. What are their plans? What are they been told their options are?

HARTUNG: Well, the best options for anybody who is still here, Ana, and I can tell you the numbers have dwindled as we have been here. People are leaving the airport, finding a way out. But by my observation, the quickest way, the most efficient way out of this airport is by Marta, the public transportation rail service that exists in Atlanta. That station has been open all day and people have continued to queue up to get on board the Marta transit system.

Otherwise, I'm told tonight it's a good night to be a taxi driver in Atlanta. Taxi drivers continue to line up in downstairs arrivals area. Uber and Lyft, we have seen them here as well. But there are so many people using Atlanta as layover. They never had any intention of being on the ground much longer than an hour or two for their layover. Hotels in the area booking up quickly. And many people, here is a problem, I heard from a lot of people, many people who had rental cars lined up for today or hoped to get a rental car from this airport to go on about their way if their final destination was within driving distance. If you want to get there to the rental car facility at the airport, you better start walking because the Skytrain that takes passengers here to the rental car facility a couple of miles away, that's been down as well.

So many difficulties in so many levels for so many people here today, Ana, as it does get darker here. And I should say the light you see on me now, of course, one of them being our TV light but also lights like you would see as a construction site that have been brought in. Tower lights outside the airport along this walk way as well as just inside the doors to my right where the airline counters are as well to allow people to communicate with officials here, law enforcement, security, and whatnot, to try to find them a place to go tonight because as one Atlanta police officer told me, it's not safe or sanitary for anyone to think that it's good idea to stay here overnight.

CABRERA: Oh, my. Kaylee Hartung, thank you for that report. I feel for those people, got to say.

This full ground stop at the airport, the size of Atlanta will throw a monkey wrench we know into the entire country's flight schedules especially now at the peak of the holiday travel season.

I want to bring Tom Sater, CNN meteorologist, weather anchor.

Tom, I know you have been look at flight trackers, see how this is going to impact the ripple effect so to speak. What are you finding out?

TOM SATER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, there are -- basically Ana, there are three pretty good internet services -- flight explorer, flight tracker 24, flight aware. Let me begin with the showing what a typical image would look like.

This is an image we had from just a couple of months ago. And to give you an idea, you can see the heavy traffic, really, that is around the Atlanta area. Incoming, out-coming flights, it's clustered right here in the center as you would also notice overturn to Charlotte area. It does not look like this anymore. And it's no surprise that when it comes across the whole country, the longest delays in the entire U.S., four-and-a-half over five hours at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

Now, this is what flight aware is showing us. Let me get in a little bit closer. It's kind of hard to detect. It does show, of course, some rain, which has all been light. It hasn't been a problem with the flight until, of course, this outage. We have nothing in coming in the area. That cluster that we saw which was the original pattern is now quite dispersed.

We have one color of green. That's an outgoing flight. At 6:05, they did allow a Delta flight to take off after sitting on the tarmac for over five hours. In fact, five hours and five minutes on its way to Chicago O'Hare. Why the others were not allowed to depart, we are not sure. We did hear 2earlier as you know that many of the passengers just had to stay onboard and on the tarmac while we have the power outage and continue. But they did allow the one to go.

So nothing is incoming right now. Nothing is outgoing. And, of course, all these other flights being diverted elsewhere. But it's going to be quite interesting to watch and see what happens. Obviously, with this being shut down, the backup is going to take days most likely. I can't see this just happening in a 12-hour period. That everyone is back on schedule. It's significant for the number of passengers. But it will be interesting to note why they let that one flight go and take off towards Chicago and keeping others on the tarmac for hours.

CABRERA: Thank you, Tom. And I guess I should also ask, when you talk about the potential that this could take days for people to get rerouted.

SATER: It's possible.

CABRERA: The weather that could just compile to make this situation even worse?

SATER: I think it's just the volume right now that they are going to have to deal with. I mean, it's not just one airline. And of course, Atlanta being a major hub, I mean, typically it is 24/7 almost with that kind of cluster that we saw in our original image.

But this could be significant. We will just have to sit and see what happens. But obviously with the thousands that are there, accommodations are going to be first and foremost priority for all of them.

[19:10:08] CABRERA: All right. Tom Sater, thank you. Of course, Atlanta airport is a major hub for airlines all across the

country. And I want to bring in CNN safety analyst, former FAA safety inspector David Soucie who is joining us on the phone from Denver.

So David, with pilots stuck on the tarmac, I mean, what kind of impact could this have on airports across the country?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN AVIATION SAFETY ANALYST (on the phone): Well, it's like a ripple, as you say a ripple effect. It's like these dominos that are falling because you have to start worrying about crew rest times. A Certain amount of time that the pilot has to rest in between each 24 hours. So now, it really got messed up. It is going to take a lot to get things back in order. So that's the first thing that pilots are going to have to worry about is can they even, if they could take off right now, could they do that within their duty times or would they have change the crews out.

So even when the power comes back on, Ana, it is not going to be an easy process to get things up and running again.

CABRERA: We have talked to our Betsy Klein who has been on the plane for five hours and have been told that it could be another two hours before they get off. They have been asked not to flush toilets. They don't have running water in these planes. Do airlines and airports prepare for a potential incident like this?

SOUCIE: Well, there are protocols but the protocols actually starts way back in the Georgia power protocol which is that there are three trunk lines that go into the airport. One of which is for security such as doors, getting in and out, things like that. So that's number one.

The second trunk line is for any, still essential, but like air traffic control equipment, anything like that that would talk - that would do communications. But if I'm reading this right, there has not been any communications with people out in the waiting areas there, the border areas, so that tells me that tier two might be down as well, which would be really catastrophic. I don't think in the history that I know of that there's been an airport that's gotten a tier two trunk cut. So this is really a serious situation. And it starts again with the protocols there. The protocols with what they do at the airport, the tier two protocol, it surprises me they are letting people stay in the airport at all at this point. So I would be prepare to have an evacuation of all the people out of that airport if the fire isn't contained that Georgia power is working with. But it sounds like they may have it contained.

CABRERA: It is just a matter of getting power restored which again is supposed to happen. They are hoping by midnight, again five hours from now, there was a tweet that caught our eye. Former transportation secretary Anthony Fox apparently stuck on one of the Delta planes in Atlanta right now. And he writes, there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source, none. Does that strike you as odd too?

SOUCIE: Very much so. As I said, there's three power tiers, but they -- each of those power tiers have three redundant sources. So you will have the power source itself. It even comes from two different counties to that airport. So the fact that it all went down, it's just -it is truly inexcusable.

But not only that, you have generators, you have backup sources, there is so many redundancies in each one of the power trunks that I can't imagine why it would have shut down other than if it was a fire that was expected to propagate to certain areas and other areas and they may have shut them down ahead of time to make sure there wasn't electricity that would carry those fires to another location. I mean that's a possible. But somebody is going to have to answer for this at some point and it's not going to be pretty.

CABRERA: All right, David Soucie, good to talk to you. Thank you so much for your insight and expertise. We of course appreciate it.

We will continue to follow up on this, the ripple effect of this ground stop. It is huge.

Up next I will speak to the former assistance homeland security secretary who says this situation is simply unacceptable.

You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. Don't go away.


[19:17:58] CABRERA: Continuing to follow this breaking news out of Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world at a total standstill. All commercial flights are canceled at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson international airport. Thousands of passengers are stranded in pitch black terminals. Georgia power says it may be midnight before the power is restored.

Let's talk it over with CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz, the former managing director on the NTSB, the national transportation safety board.

Peter, Atlanta's airport, obviously huge, huge hub for so many airlines and yet the airport, these airline officials have not held any kind of press conference six hours into this mess. What's your reaction?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think Delta, which is the main operator out of Hartsfield is probably missing the boat on this. I mean they have probably 90 percent of the flights in and out of Hartsfield today. And they should be communicating not only with their customers but with the public.

This is going to be a nightmare for a good two to three weeks for Delta. This is the most crowded time of the year. The low factors are the number of people on the planes are all in the high 90s. These customers are going to have to be re-accommodated. It's going to cascade onto other carriers. This is a very tough situation.

CABRERA: Power outages at airports seem to be fairly rare. Thankfully, we don't hear of it often. Your take on Georgia power's response to the situation so far.

GOELZ: Well, we don't know what caused the outage, but they do occur. And the airports --.

CABRERA: We are hearing they believe it was a fire at their power station, I guess.

GOELZ: Yes. And the airports are supposed to have backup power to two levels. And there are supposed to be able to degrade their air traffic system down to a lesser level and still keep operating. But apparently, this fire was of such magnitude that it shut down all of the alternate sources of power as well. This is going to have to be investigated very carefully after this event because this shouldn't have happened.

[19:20:10] CABRERA: So thousands of people obviously are now stuck at that airport, no power until midnight. We are hearing they have construction lights set up to help people see and get where they are going. What should airport officials be doing to help keys these passengers safe and orderly?

GOELZ: Well, they need to get as many of their passengers first off the plane, off the tarmac, and into the -- into the actual airport structure itself. Then they need to start transporting passengers to nearby hotels by the airport and in downtown Atlanta.

Sunday night, thankfully, a lot of the hotels have not a heavy bookings. They need to give people some comfort for the next 12 to 24 hours while their systems come back up. Then it's going to be a very tough rescheduling challenge.

CABRERA: When we hear from passengers who are stuck on airplanes who have been on the ground waiting to get off for in some cases five hours already and they are being told that it could be another two hours or so before they can even deplane, does that surprise you?

GOELZ: It doesn't because of the sheer number of aircraft and sheer number of passengers. But my guess is that Atlanta has not trained for this kind of disaster before. You know, you don't -- it's hard to imagine a total shutdown during one of the busiest flight days of the year. My guess is they have been taken a little bit by surprise.

CABRERA: Aren't we all taken by surprise by this?

Peter Goelz, thank you. We appreciate the input there.

I want to get more perspective. Joining us is former assistant secretary at homeland security, Juliette Kayyem and former CIA operative Bob Baer.

Juliette, you say this situation is unacceptable. Explain why?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, unacceptable across a number of areas. First of all, the communication is just completely lacking. I think people are guessing what is going on. We just got a press release from I think Atlanta energy that it's likely a fire. That's a couple hours later. So just on the response side, there is just protocols do not appear to be being followed. Delta's last tweet was two hours ago, but to the cause itself.

Look. Systems break down. People understand that. That's, you know, these are complicated system, the transportation electricity. What's not forgivable and what's somewhat inexcusable this many hours later is that the system would have gone down so massively for so long. In other words, we talk about resilient systems in critical infrastructure having a resilient homeland security and part of that means is that you have backup plans, you have redundancies, that you don't have a single point of failure. In other words, one fire doesn't cause the largest airport in the United States or airport traffic in the --

CABRERA: The most business airport in the world.

KAYYEM: Yes, in the world. So that's how people in homeland security think about it. Whatever the cause, it might be fire. We didn't know that earlier. It could have been nefarious. What we look at is how do you build systems that can handle the boom, right? That causes the disruption, whether it's a fire or attack or hurricane. And I would say this is not inspiring right now.

CABRERA: Bob, as far as reacting to a crisis, what grade do you given the airport so far roughly six hours or so far in?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: A failing grade, Ana. I mean, you know, where is the on-site generator? Every airport in the third world has an on-site generator. Power goes down, they are ready for it. They could at least keep planes up and get them down and keep basic services going.

And the fact is Juliette is absolutely right. Our infrastructure is also getting a failing grade. This should not happen. And you also have to keep in mind how vulnerable airports are to be taken out electricity by terrorists, you know. It is an offsite attack. And you know, they could do this very easily too and we are just not prepared for it in the least.

CABRERA: Juliette, give that it's a little before 7:30 there right now, no more flights out tonight, what does the airport do to take care of thousands of people who may be stranded there?

KAYYEM: Well, it would seems to me at this stage you would have established emergency protocols to get people off the planes. They are stationary, Atlanta is -- you know, it's a sophisticated airport. You should be able to get people onto the tarmacs, onto the runways, and into a stable - and you know, into the terminals.

They shouldn't be sitting on airplanes for hours on end without bathrooms. I mean, this is, you know, this shouldn't be happening because the element, it's not like there's a blizzard going on, right. They can get out in the rain.

So first of all, you want to protect people's health and safety and security. And then once you get the generators back going you are going to then just have to essentially reprocess hundreds of thousands of people who are traveling during the holiday season.

This is going to be a week-long delay, I have no doubt about it. And it's not just Atlanta. Think of every airport in Singapore. I mean, think of all these airports that are connected to Atlanta that are now being impacted by this.

So this is -- this is a disaster is a little strong to say, but this is sort of an embarrassment. And most importantly, it's got to be a lesson learned. We cannot have our system of critical infrastructure be so vulnerable to a single point of failure like this. It is just - it is not how a country like ours should be build.

[19:25:56] CABRERA: You say it may not be a disaster, I would argue that of the people who have been stuck on planes for hours and hours with no running water and the bathrooms are thinking this is a disaster.

Bob, we do believe according to the officials that it was caused by a fire for re hearing from officials it may have been caused by a fire. For a while it was who did this, how did this happen. But it does highlight a potential vulnerability as you pointed out or touched on earlier. How much of a target are our power grids and electrical facilities?

BAER: Well, Ana, let me put it this way. When I joined the CIA, I went to a paramilitary course where they trained as to take out power at an airport. It's very easy to do. You have to anticipate it. You need to red team it, green team it and so forth. It's just very, very easy to do.

And, again, I go back to on-site generators. You sort of expect either a fire or a terrorist attack and you have some sort of backup. If this had been a terrorist attack, it would have been a total catastrophe for all of our aviation across the United States, clearly, you know, almost another 9/11.

CABRERA: Bob Baer and Juliette Kayyem, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for joining us.

All right. A star studded gala just a few minutes away now. We are live on the red carpet at the 11th annual CNN Heroes all-star tribute. You see celebrities pouring in. And we are going to be taking you there to the red carpet coming up next. Stay with us.


[19:31:55] CABRERA: In just minutes, a little less than a half an hour from now, 8:00 p.m. eastern, the 11th annual CNN Heroes: an all- star tribute kicks off here in New York. The presenters and stars are already filling in to this event. Guest co-host Kelly Ripa will join Anderson Cooper and a whole flew (ph) of celebrities to honor ten- everyday people changing the world for the better. As always the star-studded gala will include the unveiling of CNN's hero of the year.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is joining us now from the red carpet as CNN Heroes and Hollywood heavyweights make their way down the red carpet.

So, Polo, who have you been seeing and talking to?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Way too many people to name. There are so many folks that have come from all walks of life here. Things are slowly winding down on the red carpet which could only mean that things are just beginning right now inside of the main event as we are preparing now to start of that main event here.

Going back to some of the stories that we have been hearing tonight. For example, there was one of the heroes who I spoke with that leads a nonprofit in Cape Town, South Africa that essentially helps some of the orphans who perhaps have lost their parents to aids. These are people who from all walks of life, from every corner of the world, everyday people doing remarkable things.

The celebrities I have had an opportunity to speak to here on the red carpet tell me that tonight is about them. Those heroes, those people just like -- could be your neighbor. And that really is the other point here.

Tonight is not only a chance to celebrate what some of these heroes have been doing in making this world a better place, but perhaps starting to think about your neighbor, somebody from school, somebody who you know that is changing the world, making it a better place. Perhaps they should be nominated for next year. Maybe they should be walking down this red carpet.

But for now everybody's now preparing for the main event starting here in a little under 30 minutes. We will have the top ten heroes of the year plus the answer to that question you posed a little while ago, who will be awarded hero of the year. That will certainly come with more benefits, more financial support that they perhaps need to continue operating their nonprofit and doing even more good, Ana.

So it certainly has been a very busy night, but it certainly will be an emotional and a very busier - even busier night in the hours ahead as CNN's heroes gets under way.

CABRERA: And, Polo, last hour, you talked with Diane Lane. Talk to us about her thoughts and what a big deal this is.

SANDOVAL: Absolutely. Some of these Hollywood figures tell us that they -- some of them have played heroes on television, but tonight it's about the real hero, those that do every day acts of kindness not only to help others but also to make this world a much better place.

I believe that we do have a little bit about what some of the individuals here on the red carpet had been telling us, had been sharing some of their inspirational stories. Here's one of them.


DIANE LANE, ACTRESS: It's sort of like the holiday gift to the world to be reminded of the human spirit and how we don't take no for an answer when it's for something good. We must continue the furtherance of helping where we can, doing what you can with what you have where you are and what you've got.


[19:35:06] SANDOVAL: Diane Lane, just one of many celebrities that are giving some of their time to CNN and many of the sponsors that are making this night a reality. And the main message there is this certainly is kind of a reset moment for everybody, perhaps even some of those recognized figures, some of the big names. Andrew Day who I spoke to come, who will be performing tonight, all of them saying that tonight is about the real stars, the heroes.

CABRERA: People who are changing lives.

Polo Sandoval, thank you for that report.

Up next, back to our breaking news. Atlanta airport frozen as a power outage paralyzes the world's busiest airport. Up next, we will talk with a pair of travelers who have been stuck at the airport for more than six hours now. What are they going to do?

Stay with us. You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[19:40:12] CABRERA: It's our breaking news this Sunday, a major incident at one of the busiest traffic hubs in the world. Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson international airport where the power is still off. It has been that way nearly eight hours, no flights are going in or out. Thousands of people are going nowhere, either sitting on planes, unable to get off or stranded inside one of the airport terminals.

CNN's Kaylee Hartung is at the airport for us.

Kaylee, what are you hearing? I understand maybe the power is starting to come back on?

HARTUNG: Ana, the first bit of good news here all day, is we just learned that power in the F concourse at the international terminal, power has been restored there. Georgia power saying they are expecting to restore power to the Atlanta airport as a whole by midnight. We will see if that's able to happen.

Right now, one of the top priorities, as you mentioned, getting folks out of this airport but also getting folks off the planes that are still sitting on this runway.

I want to bring in Evan Lamberson. His flight landed around 1:00 today. And he just walked out of the doors of this airport. His mom, Melanie, coming here to pick him up as he is home from college for Christmas.

Evan, tell me how you physically got off of your plane and into the airport?

EVAN LAMBERSON, STRANDED PASSENGER: OK. So we were on the runway for about four hours and then they taxied us over to an area near the B concourse to B terminal. And after about another hour of waiting in line to the plane, they pulled us up a set of stairs and we walked down the stairs onto the tarmac. And they had the guys with the light making us a little pathway. And so we walked down the pathway. And then there was another set of stairs up into like the plane tube, I'm not sure what it's called.

HARTUNG: The jet way.

LAMBERSON: The jet way. That's what I'm looking for. And so, we walked of us there at the end of the jet way and it was like really steep. And then when we got into the B concourse, everything was dark and there were people with flashlights. And so, then I had to walk all the way to like where the plane train would be, walk down the escalator and then walk all the way over to ground transportation. But there was a huge line for the escalator for ground transportation so I walked up to escalator for the T concourse all the way over to like -- and then got out to here.

HARTUNG: Such an ordeal. What kind of communication were you getting while you were on that plane for five hours?

LAMBERSON: So the pilot gave us like updates every half hour. But we didn't really know what was going on until about 2:15 when he was like, OK, so the airport is out of power. We are going to be sitting here for a while. At first like they didn't really know like they had a couple of ideas what had happened. They thought maybe an animal crawled into a transformer and exploded it or maybe a construction crew had cut a power line is what we heard. But it was a good just like four hours of not really hearing much. They tried to get a catering food in because the plane ran out of snacks and water and that never worked out. But eventually, we got communication from the air traffic control team who were using hand-held radios because they didn't have power. They told us that we were going to taxi over to the B concourse and eventually deplane.

HARTUNG: And now, mom tells me sushi and steak dinner awaits Evan as he is finally home from college for the holidays, Ana.

CABRERA: All right. Good for him. There's some light at the end of the tunnel.

Kaylee Hartung, thank you. We will continue to follow this breaking news. The ripple effect of this ground stop is huge. Up next, the startling look at the flight tracker where you can see the skies over Atlanta nearly empty.

Stay with us. You are line in CNN NEWSROOM.


[19:48:25] CABRERA: Continuing to follow the breaking news. If you are just joining us, a major, major power outage hitting at the heart of holiday travel season, a power outage at Atlanta's Hartsfield- Jackson international airport. That has been going on now for over six hours.

And joining us on the phone is Michael Huerta, the administrator of the federal aviation administration.

Thank you so much, sir, for being with us. What have you learned about this situation? What led up to it?

MICHAEL HUERTA, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION (on the phone): Well, we are working with the city. It is, you know, clearly a power outage that has affected the airport. And what we do in a situation like this is work with the airlines, the airport, essentially just to ensure that the system is safe. And so, you know, obviously with no power, it's very difficult to operate within the airport. And so, you know, we imposed earlier today a ground stop for all flights going into Atlanta. And we are working just to ensure that the airlines can continue to operate around the situation there. But we are really waiting for the airport and Georgia power to come back to us as to when the situation is resolved there.

CABRERA: Can you confirm that it was, indeed, a fire that caused the power outage?

HUERTA: That I don't know. You really need to talk to the airport or to the power authority about that.

CABRERA: I mean, I'm looking at tweets from people who are stuck on these planes. One of them being the former transportation secretary, Anthony Fox. And one line stood out. He says, there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. None. Do you agree with that?

[19:50:08] HUERTA: Well, you know, certainly for our air traffic facilities, we have backup power for all of the critical air traffic facilities. And I'm sure that the airport, you know, will be looking into the situation to see what happened. It is a situation for a critical infrastructure like this. You do want to see backup power so that you can ensure that it will continue to operate under a variety of circumstances. But there is still a lot left we have to learn.

CABRERA: Michael Huerta, thank you so much, the administration of the federal aviation administration. We appreciate you taking some time with us.

We are back in a moment.


[19:55:15] CABRERA: A quick update here on the breaking news we have been following all afternoon. The complete power outage at the busiest airport, not only in the country, but the world. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson international, now an electricity there, an electrical problem caused the power to go out earlier today, around 1:00 in the afternoon eastern time. That was, of course, when the airport was teeming with people. Everything stopped. No planes taking off and those on the ground could to the let passengers out.

Thousands of people were suddenly just stranded at the airport. Again, it happened about seven hours ago. And now we are hearing, slowly, power may be returning. The lights have come back on in at least one part of the airport, but all commercial flights into and out of Atlanta are canceled for tonight.

Tom Sater is here from the CNN weather center.

Tom, how is this impacting flights across the country?

SATER: Ana, we are a week away from Christmas Eve and volume is only going to increase throughout the week. Flight explorer, flight tracker 24, flight aware. Let's talk about the differences.

First, I want to show you a typical image on flight explorer. And you can see the activity and what a major hub this is here in Atlanta. Look at the activity here. The inbound, the outbound flights, it's like a Spiro graph. Now I'm going to show you what it looks like now because it was really something about I would say about three hours ago.

Let's go to flight aware. And you are going to be able to see a lot of dead space. I mean, there is a lot of open sky in this area. What we have noticed, though, which has been interesting, in and around the Atlanta area, is we are seeing significant travel and congestion down into some of the airports in Florida. Significant around Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, all the way down toward Miami. So many of those flights may be going there temporarily. This is not going to be an easy fix. So I think this is going to take a while.

CABRERA: It's not just going to take flights today, but probably the rest of the week, as you pointed out earlier.

Tom Sater, thank you.

More breaking news tonight now. Senator John McCain will miss the final vote on his own party's tax reform bill. A vote expected in just days now. He is, instead, returning home to Arizona after spending several days hospitalized at Walter Reed medical center as he has been battling brain cancer. And he was there, recovering from the side effects of chemotherapy. Now, President Trump says he has spoken with the senator's wife. Listen.


TRUMP: I did speak to Cindy McCain and I wished her well. I wished John well. They have headed back. But I understand he will come if we ever need his vote, which hopefully we won't. But the word is that John will come back if we need his vote.


CABRERA: We are also hearing from the senator's daughter, Meghan McCain. She tweeted, thank you to everyone for their kind words. My father is doing well and we are all looking forward to spending Christmas together in Arizona. Senator McCain is 81 years old.

Meantime, out west, wildfires have taken a huge toll in southern California in the past couple of weeks. Residents say the deadly fires have turned what was once a paradise into a war zone. Sadly, like any war, there is a human cost. This is Cory Iverson. He died of burns and smoke inhalation while he was battling the Thomas fire last week. Firefighters held a solemn procession for their fallen comrade today. His procession traveled from Ventura to San Diego, where Iverson worked as a firefighter. A woman also died trying to flee the flames of the Thomas fire.

Just moments away now, the 11th annual "CNN Heroes: an all-star tribute" kicks off in New York. This is what the red carpet looked like a short time ago. Guest co-host Kelly Ripa will join Anderson Cooper and a slew of celebrities to honor ten everyday people changing the world for the better. And as always, the star-studded gala will include the unveiling of CNN's hero of the year. Here's a sneak peek.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are every day heroes. They inspire and change lives every day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to make sure they make better choices when it comes to violence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you lose your child, the love doesn't go away, it has to find a place. I'm lucky I found a place to put at that love.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are truly what it means to be a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is people helping people the best way we know how.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When they see me, they always feel happy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just give them a chance. They can do anything you ask them to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight, CNN presents a very special light event.


KELLY RIPA, TV HOST: And I'm Kelly Ripa.

COOPER: Join us live for CNN Heroes, an all-star tribute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CNN Heroes, an all-star tribute live tonight at 8:00 p.m. on CNN.


CABRERA: Thanks for being here. I'm Ana Cabrera. CNN Heroes: an all-star tribute starts right now.