Airlines Start Getting Smart About Power Outlets Onboard

American, Seats, United

It’s been incredible watching every airline scramble to figure out when and on what planes to install internet. As more and more airlines get wi-fi up and running on more and more planes, they need to address the closely-related problem that has been ignored for too long. How can people power up? American and United are both starting to get serious about addressing the issue, and we should all be happy.

American recently took delivery of a new 737-800. I couldn’t figure out why everyone was making such a big deal about this, especially since they already fly a bunch of them. But these 737s are configured differently. Yes, they’ve crammed two more rows of seats on these planes (claiming that the seats are thinner so the experience is no different, but I can’t verify without sitting in it myself). The big news, however, is that there are now two power outlets for every set of three seats on board in coach.

Admittedly, American has been ahead of many when it comes to power, but this is a big step forward. Not only will there be two for every three seats (and one per seat in First Class), but these are regular 110V outlets, not those annoying cigarette lighter ones that require an adapter. Of course, they say wi-fi will be coming soon on these planes – these go hand in hand.

Then we have United. The airline is testing a modified 757 which will look somewhat similar to the American product. There will be thinner seats (all leather) so they can squeeze in an extra row of seats. But United has also decided to put two power outlets per row of three and one per seat in First Class. These are also standard 110V outlets that require no adapter. This is only on one test plane, but I can’t imagine them bothering with this test if they didn’t have real plans to implement it on a broader scale.

This is all great news. Airlines have finally come to the realization that this is something that’s really important to travelers, especially if they’re going to be able to connect to the internet onboard. Of course, Virgin America launched with power outlets like this, and they’ll be done installing inflight internet on every plane within a month. So this can be considered “closing the gap” for the legacy guys, but it’s a welcome change that hopefully everyone will adopt.

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22 comments on “Airlines Start Getting Smart About Power Outlets Onboard

  1. Will be interesting to see what DL does, since they’ve committed to a large Wi-Fi operation. Same goes with Southwest, as they haven’t seemed to be too interested in in-seat power so far.

  2. Finally some serious attention to the onboard connectivity needs of the economy class. Maybe they’ve realized that all of those “First is full, please take your original assigned seat” people are still among their top revenue generators.

    Did American announce a roll-out schedule? I can’t imagine the transcon and international planes not being among the first in line for the upgrade.

  3. By “roll-out” I refer to getting power to the coach seats. I did the same as Bobber in dropping $60 for an adaptor I’ve thus far used only once.

  4. Optimist – The only thing I’ve heard so far is that all new 737-800s will be delivered this way. Maybe they’re focusing on the domestic product since that’s where wi-fi will work for now, but still I’d hope that they would see the value on long international flights as well.

  5. American indeed hasn’t announced any plans to put the AC outlets on their international fleet (only the new 737s). However, you’re right that American is WAY in front of the competition. They have had power in about half the rows in coach on every mainline plane (except a few ex-TWA 757s) for years. Also, they use the cigarette lighter-style outlet that’s compatible with cars, not the airplane-specific EmPower adapter that most other airlines use. I use my adapter frequently both on American plans and in cars (for charging the laptop, iPod, or phone on long drives); it’s nice not to need a separate one for the plane.

    Of course, switching to AC power on the new planes is a significant improvement.

  6. Given the abuse that seats take, I really wonder about the long term safety of a 110V jack next to every seat.

  7. I wonder if old fashion values and manners will prevail when three people sitting in the same coach row all want to use a power outlet on a long flight and there are only two. Will they have good manners and share, or will they be the typical self center person you see more of these days who only think of themself?

    I can see this happening in the front coach cabin where United has those extra leg room premium seats. Will the poor sap who purchases the upgrade day of flight to sit in one of those seats be left out since the other two may have purchased a full fare to sit there and will throw a tantrum because they paid more so should get to use it. Which when you think of it, would be a good point.

  8. David SF –

    Good question. Particularly since I’m gathering that the power jack will be placed in line with the armrests one has to wonder if there will be a power struggle or claims of “hey, it’s in my space which I paid for!”

    Dog in the manger battles. Nice. Even if the person has no plans to use it but won’t want to get tangled up in the other person’s power cord.

    Me? I’m a big man with a 17″ laptop so I can’t use mine in coach unless at least the seat next to me is empty. This should be fun.

  9. I think the number of times you’ll have three people in one row looking for a power source will be very, very small. When it does happen, well, there will probably be drink chits flying around to settle things down.

  10. The other option is to remember some creative problem solving. If three people in one row all want to use the onboard power, they could also see if the row behind them has any free outlets, and utilize those…

    Although, I too am interested in the safety concerns. I assume the FA’s will have a master switch to turn off all of the outlets if necessary…

  11. I haven’t started doing this, but many smart travelers carry a light extension cord/splitter with them.

    Open AC outlets are often hard to come by in airports – even the ones that have little workstations, and if someone had a splitter and asked to share I’d have no problem doing so.

    Just like most coffee shops have plenty of power strips to go around and cords all over the place, I wouldn’t care if someone plugged in with me and ran a cord under my seat. The end result is everyone happier :)

  12. I was on a DL IFE-equipped 737 a month or so ago, and every coach seat had a standard USB outlet. It won’t power the macbook, but I thought that was a pretty decent compromise. If you had a wifi-equipped iphone or ipod touch, you could surf without running down the battery. I watch saved tv shows on my bb, it was great because I could watch the whole flight and be charged and ready to go on arrival. Also, the USB is low voltage and less of a safety risk if damaged by less than conscientious customers.

  13. Good point about checking other rows for unused outlets. People will just ask others to switch seats with them if the flight is full. But then there are those people who will say sure for five bucks…

    I wonder if to many people are using them at the same time it there will start to be short circuits. You would think it would be tested with something plugged into every outlet before they were even installed, but who knows.

  14. Sounds good. I hope they allow switching the “standard” 120V to “standard” 240V – almost every other country follows the latter “standard”. Important for international flights.

  15. @ Nicholas Barnard:
    This is true. Plug shapes may be a bigger problem than voltage for some purposes depending on what the user wants to run. Airlines would have to be careful that sb doesn’t try to plug in a hairdryer of something else stupid!

    Airlines could make a killing by selling travel adapters on the plane. I’m travelling for 13 hours with my 1 year old son next month, and power was one of the things I was researching (which is what led me to this board).

    I really hope people don’t abuse the power sockets too much (and I hope terrorists don’t develop electric-powered bombs!). hehe.

  16. I noticed on the AA site that they have the 110v outlet, but their website indicates “only to 75W.” I’m wondering if those outlets could handle 90W units. Have any of you reading this thread, flown American, and used a 90W in one of those outlets for an extended period of time?

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