The Power Outlet Problem

Virgin America

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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25 comments on “The Power Outlet Problem

  1. I carry a light extension cord/splitter in my travel bag – so I can ask or offer to share when plugs at coffee shops and airports are all being utilized.

    I wouldn’t think of it until reading this, but doing that and adding more laptops and toys to each plug onboard can’t help the situation either.

    Side note I flew Continental over Labor Day and the plug on my 737’s row was inop too.

  2. This has happen to me on Air Canada too. Sometimes it takes several tries to get my macbook to actually charge without power to the outlet shutting off.

  3. “””””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.”””””

    I found the above interesting. Not sure what it all means, but it doesn’t seem right to play ‘mines bigger then yours’ so I get more power and you don’t while sitting on an airplane. Each outlet should only get x-watts and that’s it.

  4. It sounds to me like Jay Rosen is one of these schmucks who thinks the world resolves around him. Boo hoo, his power outlet didn’t work on his $200 flight across the country. Obviously VA is covering up a massive conspiracy where they claim to offer in-flight power but only 99% of the time does it work. Liars! Oh, and I flew Continental recently and they were out of Diet Sprite. But it says they do have it RIGHT IN THEIR IN-FLIGHT MAGAZINE! I hope they rot in hell!

  5. I have the same issue occasionally on United’s p.s. flight in business class. If my laptop’s battery is not fully charged, it draws too much power from the empower plug, and the plug shuts down as described in the article (the light goes from green to amber). The workaround is to take out the battery and run on power-only mode.

  6. I have had the same problem on Delta. On some flights I have noticed that my HP Laptop (an old model, which is my company workhorse: Compaq NC6400) sometimes knocks out power on my seat, and when they reset my seat and I put in my HP Netbook (HP Mini 110-1000) it works fine. It is not the airline’s fault, but a power supply/manufacturer issue.

  7. I had specifically chosen for transatlantic flight with power outlets. Both power outlets failed me and crew couldn’t do anything. I complained continental but they never bothered to reply.

  8. IFE and WiFi performance are perpetually spotty. Some of these installations are simply not ready for prime time. Thankfully, seat and system power protection appears to be Working As Designed, not poorly implemented, as on SR111.

  9. Its not the lack of power sockets or their ability to function under all circumstances on the planes that bother me, its at the airports where there is a total lack of power points when you are waiting for flights etc – Cranky I think that this might be lively debate as the vast majority of airports fail miserably in this area. Nick

    1. Like SNA (Orange County.) Last time I wandered the entire 1 and 2 terminal length wondering where the hell they plug in the vacuum cleaners.

      If you’re a regular travel a splitter (my first post) is a must now.

    2. The most glorious thing I ever saw while traveling was a man in a suit who snagged a seat next to a rare outlet and promptly pulled a surge strip out of his carryon and plugged it in, plugging his *own* gear into the other free outlet — leaving the strip open for whomever wanted to use it. He attracted quite a crowd as a result.

      Of course, the cynic in me now wonders what he was selling.

  10. Coincidentally saw this on AA’s website this morning. Probably not related, but indicative of larger issues:

    Due to a recent issue involving a powerport on an American Airlines Boeing 757, the American Airlines team will proactively deactivate all powerports on the domestic fleet. The deactivation will begin on Wednesday, September 1, 2010, as the team inspects all 104 aircraft. It is yet to be determined how long the powerports will be deactivated. We realize this is an inconvenience and the issue will be resolved as quickly as possible.

  11. I have had the same experience on the Delta DC-9-50s. In fact, sometimes the outlets disappear altogether.

    Oh, wait…

  12. Waaaaaaaaaaaah! Crybaby. The airline apologized for the mishap. Like Jared said – this guy’s a schmuck. Just looking to exploit the situation to get a full refund. Give him a few drink chits to pacify him.

  13. What I find unfortunate is Mr. Rosen having to actually call Virgin America a “liar” for supposedly false advertising. While I’m sure it feels good, surely issues like these can be resolved without resorting to that and necessarily putting someone in a bad light?

    I’d say kudos to Virgin America’s PR group or whoever for handling this “in stride” inspite of the labelling. Just unfortunate it had to happen this way instead.

  14. The power at my seat was out on a recent VX flight from MCO to SFO. When I let the flight attendant know, she asked if I’d ask to borrow another seat-mates’ outlet (stranger) or she could take the device to a working outlet and charge it up. Not a bad offer since I just wanted some power for my smart phone, but neither did it actually fix the power at my seat. I just went without power and didn’t use the wifi since I could definitely do without during the 5+ hour flight.

  15. I’ve had this problem regularly on Delta flights on both 757’s and 737-800s. I was not able to solve the issue on the 757’s at all but on the 737’s my laptop burst into life with power once the cabin crew dimmed the main cabin lights.

  16. I feel like power outlets have been around for a while now, so I’m having a hard time understanding how airlines can be stumped by the technology. I can power my house with all kinds of different loads at all times of the day with 0% downtime, but United Airlines can’t deliver a few volts to my ThinkPad. I’m confused.

    By the way, same thing goes for headphone jacks, which seem broken at least a quarter of the time.

  17. We flew with Air Canada from Toronto to Miami and back from Miami to Toronto. The aircraft was A321. It had power outlets in economy but none of them worked (we checked 2 outlets trying to plug in 2 laptops for test). But the green light in outlets was there. So I dont know, what was wrong with those outlets or Air Canada itself.

  18. frequent problems with modorate laptop bricks on various airlines – all supplied sockets are empower.

    ive had problems with Dell and MSI, i dont own other laptops.

    sometime rapidly plugging the brick works, other times not so much. ive no idea why its so shitty but its certainly annoying six years on!

  19. I had the same problem on United just a minute ago (I’m in flight now). Fixed it by unplugging then replugging in about 5 times. It might be my imagination but the last time I plugged it in successfully I did it very quickly (other times it seemed to go only half way and I had to shove it in harder for a few seconds). Hope this helps someone.

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