XNA Survives Lights Out After October Tornado

XNA Survives Lights Out After October Tornado
Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Highfill, on a much sunnier day than the one it had on Oct. 21. (Google Maps)

You certainly find out interesting things when the lights go out.

For Kelly Johnson, chief operating officer of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, one discovery was that the toilets at XNA require electricity to flush. So when a tornado rumbled through Benton County in the early hours of Oct. 21 and knocked out electricity to the airport, well, things could have gone bad pretty quickly.

“In 21 years we have never had this happen,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping it is another 21.

“All in all it could have gone a lot worse.”

Johnson said the airport lost power from about 12:16 a.m. until 10:18 a.m. The EF-2 tornado, with winds up to 120 mph, touched ground in western Benton County and then followed a northeast track for 30 minutes and 31 miles, right past the airport.

“It was on the south part of our property,” Johnson said. “It missed the terminal by maybe half a mile. We have a bunch of trees down and signage that is damaged.”

If the tornado had hit the terminal, of course, the damage would have been worse and the risk of injury increased for the passengers and employees who were at XNA. Johnson said airport workers knew strong thunderstorms were forecast, so the operations department spent the evening tying down equipment and buttoning up vendor facilities.

Still, the tornado knocked out electricity and sent baggage carts careening. One baggage cart actually collided with a commercial jet and damaged the nose cone.

Johnson said the airport staff had dealt with ice storms and wind damage before but never had a significant loss of electricity. The airport has two emergency generators but they aren’t designed to run the entire facility.

First order of business, Johnson said, was to make sure the runways were clear of debris and the generators were powering the landing lights so planes could land safely.

Two of the airport’s major airlines lost power, so their boarding systems had to operate manually. The security checkpoint was powered by the generator but there were no lights at the station.

“We jury-rigged some lighting from the construction site,” Johnson said. “Normally they open at 3:45 for passenger screening; they opened at 4. That was a pretty easy fix.”

Battery backup for parking garage lighting and the tollgate arms failed after a couple of hours. Johnson said the airport left the gate arms up to allow people to leave.

“That was probably a pretty good revenue loss for the day,” said Johnson, referring to parking fees.

The emergency generators powered the lighting for one concourse but not for the vendors or bathrooms or the airport’s escalators or elevators. Johnson said several employees had to assist passengers with mobility issues by basically carrying them up and down stairs.

The lack of electricity meant no food could be prepared, and the airport’s sinks and water fountains were inoperable. Calls went to employees on their way to the airport to stop and buy as much bottled water as they could squeeze into their cars.

Johnson said two planeloads of passengers were at the airport when the tornado knocked out power and approximately 500 passengers were in and out of the airport during the 10 long hours without electricity.

“We learned a lot,” Johnson said. “We learned that with our remodel, we need at least one escalator up and down to stay on an emergency circuit. We have already ordered new flush valves for all the toilets. We are looking to put in one standard sink in every bathroom.”

Johnson said XNA leadership is reviewing the situation to determine what was handled well and what failings need to be addressed. Since this was the first major event in 21 years, it wouldn’t make financial sense to massively upgrade the airport’s emergency capabilities for a low-risk event.

Then again, I wasn’t stuck at an airport for 10 hours without the ability to flush the toilet and wash my hands. Yes, I do. My meemaw raised a gentleman.