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More Power, Scotty!

Okay, I’m annoyed. Why is that airports, even relatively modern ones, have so few power outlets accessible to the public? I discovered this during a layover in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, waiting for a connection en route to San Francisco for Macworld Expo. Although I have two batteries for my PowerBook, Tonya has only one for her iBook, and even my two batteries wouldn’t last for both flights plus the long layover in Chicago. So we set out to find a power outlet, preferably one that wouldn’t expose us to being trod upon by passersby and that would keep us away from the incessantly piercing beeps from the carts for folks who can’t walk from gate to gate.

At least in O’Hare’s C concourse, it seemed that there was an average of one power outlet for every three or four gates, and such scarcity ensured that those outlets were always fully occupied. After a good 10 minutes of peering at walls, support columns, and various airport accouterments that themselves required power, we finally found an eating area in which several tables along a wall were near power outlets, and the turnover was high enough that we were able to snag one relatively quickly.

If we traveled more, I might consider buying a high-capacity external battery, which can provide up to 10 hours of usage. However, at between $300 and $500 (depending upon capacity), they’re not cheap, and they would add extra weight to my travel bag.

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On the face of it, the paucity of power outlets is ridiculous. It’s not as though airports pay any attention at all to power consumption (as evidenced by the massive number of lights and other machines), and the devices that travelers want to plug in sip the tiniest of wattages. Our laptops, for instance, theoretically drink only about as much power as a 45 watt light bulb; now that I’m home, I’m using a much-appreciated Christmas present from Tonya – a Watts-Up power meter – to determine exactly how much power my laptop uses in different situations (15 to 30 watts in normal usage and when charging, about 1 watt when fully charged, and nothing when the laptop isn’t plugged in, unlike some power adapters). And airports provide plenty of free amenities, ranging from the televisions feeding news and football addicts to the janitorial services that keep the restrooms clean, so it’s not like the people managing airports are philosophically adverse to making the airport experience less unpleasant.


A recent discussion in TidBITS Talk, spurred by Travis Butler’s review of third-party power adapters, lamented this sorry situation. As a number of people pointed out, finding a power outlet is only the first step – finding a working power outlet is entirely another matter, and Matt Neuburg said that the last time he tried to plug into an outlet in LAX in Los Angeles, his power adapter fell right out of what turned out to be a non-standard outlet. But it could be worse. Some years ago I once plugged my PowerBook G3 into a seemingly dead outlet in the Denver airport, only to discover the next day (by virtue of the PowerBook running its battery dry in the night while plugged into a working power outlet at home), that the airport outlet had in some way destroyed my power adapter. And Matt mentioned having seen a story about a computer user in Germany who was charged with "theft of services" for plugging into a power outlet.




Could electrical power be becoming an upsell item? In Syracuse, New York, we noticed a cell-phone charging pedestal that charged $3 for 30 minutes of battery-boosting power (the claim was that you could bring a dead cell phone battery up to 25 percent capacity in 15 minutes and 50 percent in 30 minutes). It came with plugs for most types of cell phones and was operated by SmarteCarte, the same company that rents luggage carts in many airports. Needless to say, this pedestal of power was plugged into the wall, and I had a mischievous vision of someone unplugging it to hijack its power outlet for a cell phone wall wart, though when I checked it more carefully on our return trip, its outlet was locked up tight.

Power provision doesn’t have to be so crass. Even in upstate New York, where our power costs about 12 cents for a kilowatt-hour, charging a cell phone for 30 minutes wouldn’t cost even a penny – in fact, some quick tests with the Watts-Up showed that it would barely cost a penny per day to leave my cell phone charging all day long. Sure, SmartCarte’s power pedestal is also selling the convenience of being able to charge a cell phone if you forgot your power adapter, but on a pure cost per kilowatt-hour basis, SmartCarte is printing money. Assuming anyone uses the device, of course. Seems like a pay phone would be a more cost-effective method of calling home, and airports are the one place where pay phones still exist.

Hmm. Maybe I should start traveling with a power strip purely so I can use – and then share with my fellow power-hungry travelers – any outlet I can find. If I’m arrested for theft of services, promise you’ll all send me cookies in prison.

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