Camped out on the floor at a Southwest Airlines gate at Baltimore’s airport, Jacque Biscotti clings to the most precious piece of real estate she can find: space to plug into a wall outlet.
“I’m loading up on games like Minecraft and Battle Bears and Amazon videos and Kindle books,” says Biscotti, 33, who’s juicing up two iPads and three iPhones ahead of a four-hour flight to Colorado with her four children.
At New York’s LaGuardia, Jennifer East isn’t so lucky. She’s lingering in a food court in vain hope of finding an available charging station.
“There could always be more,” she laments.
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Across the U.S., device-laden travelers can be seen daily prowling concourses in search of elusive power, while plugged-in fliers greedily squat at gates, lean against pillars and poke behind furniture to top up batteries. Samsung Electronics Co. made light of the outlet drought in a recent ad that depicts Apple Inc. iPhone users glumly tethered to walls as other passengers chug past.
Electricity is “one of the top, if not the top, amenity requested by travelers,” said Shauna Forsythe, chief executive officer of Alliance Airport Advertising in Las Vegas, which has recharging towers at four airports. “The proliferation of devices has just exponentially increased the demand.”
More and more devices
In 2000, barely half of U.S. adults owned a mobile phone. Now that figure is at 90 percent, and business fliers are even more connected, lugging an average of three devices, according to Wi-Fi provider IPass Inc. Based on recent travel patterns, that means more than 1.3 billion laptops, tablets and phones will be toted through airports on work trips this year.
“That number is only going to grow in the future,” said Shawn DuBravac, who flies about 150,000 miles a year as chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association. “It’s not just the business traveler; it’s also the family of five that’s traveling with six or seven devices. Even if it’s a toddler, chances are there is a tablet or a smartphone attached to that traveler.”
There are no nationwide standards for providing electricity for air travelers. In some cases, airport operators lead the way. In others, it’s airlines. The result is a patchwork of power availability.
“A lot of places where I’m at, I’m going behind the gate agent’s podium and finding one of her plugs,” said Ward Bissey, 42, a regional-airline pilot who was passing through LaGuardia last month. “Most passengers can’t do that.”
Power in the air
Power while on the ground remains critical to passengers about to embark on flights without power sources. Only about a quarter of the jets flying domestic routes of less than six hours have coach-cabin outlets, according to travel website SeatGuru.com. Fliers also have more time to use devices while airborne with the easing of most takeoff and landing limits.
A report on airport technology access by PCWorld magazine published in December 2011, the most recent available, found an average of about 5.5 outlets — each defined as a pair of sockets — per gate among the 40 busiest U.S. airports.
The findings suggest why Samsung struck a chord with its spot on outlet stalking. A U.S. domestic jet carries about 150 people. With 80 percent of the seats filled, that’s 120 fliers in a boarding area with fewer than a dozen openings to power up.
“It’s one of the real priorities in terms of features and amenities in any terminal project that we do,” said Doug Yakel, a spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, a hub for United Airlines. More than 750 power outlets were added in two terminals in recent years, with the latest updates in January.
Incorporating outlets into seats at the airport is part of the effort to ensure that travelers aren’t rummaging behind soda machines or tailing custodians to see where their vacuum cleaners are plugged in. So are custom-built desk-style workstations or free- standing towers, which may just draw power-seekers to the center of a departure lounge rather than the walls.
“You have people sitting on the floor all around these poles,” said John Antos, 65, a management consultant from Dallas who flies often. “People are tripping over each other.”