The Power Outlet Problem

When you read the subject line, you probably thought I was talking about the problem of airlines not bothering to put power outlets onboard in this age of electronic dependence. That is a huge problem, but Virgin America Outlet AdTweakedit’s not the one I’m talking about today. Apparently, some laptops are causing onboard power supplies to stop working on those airlines that do offer power outlets, and that is not making people happy. Here’s what’s going on.

This was brought to my attention when James Fallows wrote about Jay Rosen (of PressThink and NYU) and his power saga. Apparently, Jay was on his way back from Vegas to JFK when his power outlet failed to work and he wasn’t happy. After all, he had chosen Virgin America because of the fact that it has wifi and power outlets at every seat (well, actually 2 for every 3 seats). And now it wasn’t working.

You can follow the Twitter conversation he had with Virgin America if you’d like but I think the airline handled it as well as it could. Great engagement with the customer, even though there was not going to be any pleasing this guy short of parachuting someone into the airplane to fix his problem.

But this story got me interested beyond just Jay’s experience. Is there a power outlet problem? Can it not handle the load of every outlet being used at the same time? While having power onboard is a great amenity, it’s not if it doesn’t work. As Jay said (unfairly, in my opinion), Virgin America is lying about having power available. Is that true? I went to Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini to find out more.

According to Abby, there is a problem out there but it’s one that can usually be fixed relatively quickly. Jay’s problem was more of an anomaly. First, Abby confirms that there is absolutely enough power onboard to handle 100 laptops at a time:

We do have “enough power” to supply power to all outlets onboard (there are two outlets at every three person row) – and that is what the outlets were designed for and are certified for with the FAA. To get that particular certification you in fact have to test over 100 laptops onboard at once. Each pair of outlets at every row of three can support a total of 225 watts per this certification. When one outlet is drawing 150 watts, then the second one is limited to a maximum draw of 75 watts.

So what happened in this case where Jay’s power was out for over an hour?

The issue we believe Jay unfortunately encountered relates to surge protection and can affect some laptop users (as laptops have evolved significantly since our 2007 launch – the newer laptops and certain types of AC charger/adaptor in particular have been more closely linked to this occurrence). Unfortunately some computer power supplies may present a request for power with a momentary amperage spike that is interpreted by the in-seat power system as a surge. That said, in these limited instances, 80% of the time – plugging and unplugging the device will rectify the temporary surge protection, but occasionally, and in this case, it does not address the issue. As mentioned, our engineering team are working now on how to address this issue for some users and are also evaluating new in-seat power supply surge protection to help eliminate this problem on our new aircraft. Most people do not have an issue with the power – and it is in fact one of our most complimented features.

That’s probably far more than you ever cared to know about this, but in short, newer laptops do something funny that trips the surge protector and shuts off power. It can usually be fixed by unplugging and then replugging the laptop but that didn’t work in this case. And Virgin America is working on finding a solution to fix this.

I guess that’s the hazard of being a first mover. Not many airlines are putting power outlets in every class of service, so the first ones to do it are bound to run into some hiccups. Now they just need to get it fixed. But until it’s fixed, Virgin America seems to be handling the situation as well as it could be.

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