POWER FAILURE: On 24th May 2023, Manchester Airport hit the headlines, as a power outage saw check-in desks closed, flights grounded, and customers left frustrated and angry. 

As the airport contends with the aftermath, including passengers who watched their flights leave overhead, flights unable to refuel, and a flood of social media comments branding the incident “absolute chaos” and “an utter disgrace”, we explore the impact of power failures in commercial airport environments.  

What caused the power failure? 

Whilst the technical detail behind the incident has not yet been released, an article on ITVX stated that the outage was due to “a fault at an external substation.” Electrical substations play a key role in transmitting electricity through the national system safely, effectively, and at different voltages. Faults can be down to a range of issues, including anything from problems with transformers, distribution boxes, switches, cables, or circuit breakers, to environmental factors, voltage regulation issues, or communication and cybersecurity threats. 

As with any power generation equipment, substation maintenance, including periodic and planned inspection, repair, and replacement of all switchgear, structures, and ancillary equipment is a critical step in mitigating these issues. 

However, for businesses and service providers that rely on electricity to remain operational, having local/site-specific backup power is critical to keeping business operations moving and avoiding costly downtime. 

Backup power in airports 

While airports vary in terms of size and complexity of systems, the cost and reputational damage caused by a power outage can be huge. In December 2017, the world’s busiest airport experienced a power outage that lasted nearly 12 hours. More than 1,100 flights were grounded, 30,000 people impacted, and the estimated cost to Delta Airlines alone was $50 million.  

As well as the more obvious issues of lighting and electrically-powered services such as check-in screens, luggage carousels, and restaurants and other amenities being unavailable, critical infrastructure such as instrumentation in air traffic control towers, aeroplane refueling systems, or critical security infrastructure, may also be affected. 

When power from the grid fails, as it did at Manchester airport in May 2023 and in a similar incident just four years before, backup generators should kick in immediately, ensuring that essential services and equipment continue to operate. Generators must be installed in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of the system that they serve, or at the very least to meet the demands of the airport’s most critical infrastructure. However, regular and routine testing of the system is as critical as the system itself – failing to test is a recipe for disaster. 

The role of load bank testing 

Load bank testing provides a reliable and controlled method to verify the performance and capabilities of backup generators. Load banks work by simulating the actual electrical load that the generators would experience during a power outage. By subjecting the generators to testing using a load bank, their capacity, voltage regulation, frequency stability, and overall performance can be evaluated, and corrective action can be taken where necessary. This process ensures that the generator provides adequate backup power, swiftly and efficiently,  in the event of an outage. 

Paul Brickman, Commercial Director at Crestchic Loadbanks, explains, “While we don’t know what happened at Manchester airport this week, and I am absolutely not speculating, such an incident serves the purpose of highlighting the critical impact of a power cut and the value and necessity of reliable backup power.”

“My first thought when I hear any story that involves a power failure having a catastrophic commercial impact is always “But what happened to their backup power?” In most cases, it’s not that the backup power didn’t exist, or hadn’t been thought about, but that it was insufficiently maintained or of insufficient capacity to keep critical services working. In any situation where there is a generator, it absolutely has to be tested – and the only way to do this is using a load bank.” 

As well as the primary function of ensuring that backup power systems are working as they should, load bank testing has other benefits. Running a load bank test can help to determine whether the backup generators have the necessary capacity to handle the anticipated electrical load during an actual power outage. This information is crucial for ensuring that the backup power system can support critical operations without being overloaded. 

Generators that operate under light or no load for extended periods can develop a condition called “wet stacking.” This occurs when unburned fuel accumulates in the exhaust system, leading to reduced engine performance and potential damage. Load bank testing allows the generator to run at a full load, preventing wet stacking and maintaining optimal performance.

Paul concludes, “Just as with any industry where power is critical, load bank testing of airport backup generators is essential to validate their performance, prevent power failure issues, determine capacity requirements, detect faults, and, in many cases, comply with regulations. It is the only way to ensure that the backup power system is ready to provide reliable and uninterrupted power in the event of an outage.”

For more information about the role of load bank testing, speak to our team.