If you are like most air travelers, you probably don’t give backup generators much thought until something goes wrong.
Passengers who were just touching down on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle on February 17, remember what it was like at 10:30 p.m. when the runway and terminal lights went dark.
"I was thinking this was a dangerous situation and it makes me reluctant to fly back to Kona. I hope they get this situation straightened out," said Celeste Walsen.
Walsen said the pilot announced a similar outage the week before lasted 90 minutes.
The airport manager admits when the emergency power failed to kick in the second time, it put about a half dozen planeloads of passengers in jeopardy.
Wong Yuen said the safest thing that happened is that the airlines managed to get their passengers on their departing planes where there was light, even though the flights were delayed.
"We dodged a bullet. No doubt. We dodged the bullet. We dodged the bullet,” said Hawaii district manager Chauncey Wong Yuen.
Passengers at the airport that night said the chaos included the bathrooms.
"That was completely darkened so we used our cell phones to get to the stall. Then the toliets wouldn’t flush and we went to wash our hands, and the water wouldn’t come on,” said Ellen O’Neil Stephens.
When Wong Yuen got the call at 11p.m. that night, he called the fire department for help and then went to hardware store to buy $1000 worth of emergency lights.
He walked through the airport Thursday showing where the backup lights have been installed in bathrooms and other areas of the airport.
Wong Yuen said during the follow-up investigation he was surprised to learn a faulty switch gear was first flagged a year ago, but that he was personally never told about the problem.
A replacement part had to be manufactured and it has since been installed and tested.
Wong Yuen was doubly distressed to learn the last time the system was inspected was last June--when it’s supposed to get checked every other month.
Wong Yuen accepted responsibility for not running a tighter ship,
but he said he is considering disciplinary action against staff for allowing this to fall through the cracks.
Upon closer inspection this month, a private contractor specializing in high voltage work discovered a device that was damaged by arcing that was likely caused by rain blowing through a ceiling vent.
It has since been sealed and the faulty piece replaced.
The damaged device will remain the on the airport manager’s desk as reminder of the close call as the state begins a major overhaul of the 44-year-old facility.
The build out of Kona airport is expected to take about a decade. But officials say this incident like this will likely mean getting a replacement backup generator system in place, sooner than later.
In the last ten years, Wong Yuen said there have been only two other power outages that he can recall. One was in 2012 and the other was the result of a major earthquake in 2006.