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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Airports Increase Resilience to Power Outages as Electricity Grid Becomes a Target for Domestic Extremists

The Federal Aviation Administration is offering new and expanded grant programs to help fund power resilience projects.

The electricity grid is susceptible to disruptions from aging infrastructure, extreme weather events, cyber and physical attacks, and other risks that can damage electrical infrastructure and communications systems, resulting in power outages that can affect airport operations.

One 2017 outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led to about 1,200 flight cancellations and cost an airline around $50 million. More recently, in February 2023, an outage at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport resulted in flight cancellations and delays and also disrupted various services and equipment in the affected terminal.

In December, we reported that while domestic attacks on electric infrastructure are not common, they do seem to be on the rise and have become a particular target of far right and domestic extremists.

We previously reported that an accelerationist handbook being shared among extremist Telegram channels called for shooters to bypass softer targets in favor of causing chaotic blackouts by attacking power substations. The document refers to the power grid as “the main thing that keeps the anti-White system going” and calls power distribution substations “sitting ducks, worthy prey”. The guide theorizes that the power grid could be “crippled” over a large area if multiple substations were struck simultaneously or within days of each other.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducts airport inspections, which are not solely focused on airports’ electrical power systems but include those systems as a component of the inspections. According to TSA officials, the TSA Joint Vulnerability Assessment Unit, in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, conducts inspections triennially at selected airports. The purpose of these inspections is to reduce the risk of an attack and to mitigate the consequences of an attack on airports and the civil aviation system. As part of its inspections, the TSA Joint Vulnerability Assessment Unit interviews airport personnel about the airport’s electrical system. According to officials, these interviews include questions about the extent to which the airport has identified single points of failure, incorporated redundancies to improve resiliency, established fire suppression systems, and documented key power lines at the airport.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has carried out a survey of airports to determine their resilience to power outages. Twenty-four of the 30 commercial service airports that responded to the survey and subsequent interviews reported experiencing a total of 321 electrical power outages—i.e., an unplanned loss of power lasting five minutes or longer—from 2015 through 2022. Eleven of these airports reported having six or more outages over this eight year period. Airports reported that these outages affected a range of airport operations and equipment.

The survey revealed that U.S. airports are now enhancing their ability to withstand and rapidly recover from power disruptions. They’re improving their electrical infrastructure, including installing backup generators or solar panels. Some airports are also considering installing microgrids—systems that independently generate, distribute, and store power. 

All of the airports GAO spoke with reported having backup power sources, including generators, to provide power for their airports in the event of an electrical outage. The airports use generators to provide backup power for life and safety equipment, which includes ensuring power for exit lighting and fire protection equipment in the event of a power outage. Some airports also reported having backup generators to maintain some level of airport operations in the event of an outage. For example one large hub airport reported having 10 diesel fuel generators and enough fuel on site to power the entire airport for three weeks.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is offering new and expanded grant programs to help fund power resilience projects. For example, the Airport Improvement Program funding eligibility was expanded to include the Energy Supply, Redundancy, and Microgrids Program projects, which may include certain electrical power resilience projects. In addition, the new Airport Terminal Program provides funding for airport terminal development projects, including those that may strengthen resilience. This includes a $21 million award to a large hub airport for terminal improvements to include replacing electrical substations that serve critical areas of the baggage system. Airports can also use revenues from passenger facility charges to support aviation-related ground infrastructure projects, including electrical power resilience projects.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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