Up in the air, a shortage of juice

Sure there's probably Wifi on your flight, but where do you plug in your device?

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Once I got started with my writing, I checked my laptop battery. Near full charge, but I knew I'd keep checking. I knew it would be a distraction. If the plane had Wi-Fi, it ought to be high-tech enough to have power outlets, right? And so I began the hunt for a socket.

Nothing on any of the seat arms, or in front of me. I did the human pretzel thing to see if there was one on the metal dividers between the seats, or under the seat. Futile, as well as really awkward. No juice.

I rearranged my clothing back to its upright position, sat back and returned to my laptop, 15 minutes of battery life wasted. Well, I still had enough time, I figured, to last the whole flight. I was only going to Miami.

But it got me thinking. I had, first of all, paid $9.95 for a whole flight's worth of Wi-Fi. In essence I was paying for a whole battery's worth of Wi-Fi, which could be considerably less, depending on the laptop, the battery, the programs I was using etc.

But more than the cost of Wi-Fi, the lack of power seemed to carry extra weight now that passengers can use their electronic devices even during takeoff and landing.

That's going to allow us to use them an hour longer, at the very least. More, of course, if we're stuck on the tarmac for a while.

Wi-Fi onboard not only means more people might be using their laptops, but they'll be sucking more juice using battery-draining programs. (By the way, on my US Airways flight, we had to store our laptops during takeoff, only because they were big enough that they could hurt somebody if they went flying during a bumpy patch.)

I also realized that my laptop was pretty much my entertainment during the flight. There was no personal video screen, no music, no movie on overhead screens. In fact, airlines have begun tying their entertainment offerings to individual portable devices. They offer iPad rentals for a price (in business and first class they're free, of course). Otherwise, you can use your own device.

Southwest last year became the first airline to stream live TV directly to passengers' Wi-Fi-enabled portable devices; in the past, Southwest didn't have any form of in-flight entertainment. United Airlines now offers movies and TV shows through its wireless entertainment service aboard select 777 aircraft. In fact, that's the only entertainment offered on those flights.

But if they want us to make use of our electronics, we'll need electricity. United cautions passengers on its website: "If you're traveling on a flight with wireless entertainment, be sure to bring your fully-charged laptop, smartphone or tablet, and your headphones. Power outlets and Wi-Fi Internet service are not currently available on aircraft with wireless entertainment," adding that "these features will be added soon."

Back in 2006, airlines began paying attention to in-seat electricity. But they haven't kept up with demand; currently (yeah, pun intended) only a fraction of domestic flights -- some estimate as few as 5 percent -- offer electrical outlets for passengers. The paucity of power is more noticeable to the millions of passengers toting their smartphones, tablets, netbooks, iPads, etc.

I rarely see outlets on flights. They are most often available in upper classes of service, or throughout the plane on long-haul flights. I've upgraded to seats that have outlets, only to find they didn't work.

The good news is that many airlines are making plane-wide seat upgrades, and those seats will include power outlets -- maybe not at every individual seat in coach, but enough to be able to share with your row-mates.

But beware. All power is not equal. Not only might the voltage vary, but different outlets require different plugs.

Three types are available:

* Good old AC power: Uses your familiar power cord without the need for an adapter. Usually these provide 110-volt current, and may be able to take U.S. two- and three-prong plugs (as well as European two-round-prong ones).

* DC power: These are similar to your cigarette-lighter outlet, using the same type of round, push-in plug and converter to turn up to 15 volts of DC to AC.

* EmPower: Round like a cigarette-lighter adapter, but with its own configuration, it also delivers 15 volts DC power. You'll need a specific converter for EmPower outlets, though some airlines are switching their EmPower systems to work with regular AC two-prong plugs.

One more beware: Many systems are designed to limit current to a maximum of 75 watts. That's enough for a cellphone or tablet, but not for a laptop. You may be able to run your laptop, but the battery won't charge. Or the laptop will work for a while, then die. Some mobile road warriors suggest that to get the laptop to work -- or to even notice that it's plugged in -- you may need to remove your laptop battery altogether.

Electrical outlets may someday be universal, but until then, your best source for knowing in advance what your chances are of getting power on your flight is seatguru.com. This longtime and comprehensive resource for the flight warrior has worked hard to document where power outlets are on each type of aircraft. Of course, your aircraft could change at the last minute. Remember, nothing's for certain when it comes to flying.

If your flight is powerless (passenger-wise), and you absolutely positively have to get work (or movie-watching) done, your only other option on a flight longer than your battery's life is to bring another battery or power source. I know, yet one more item to toss into the frighteningly bloated carry-on.

Hopefully, the airlines will get the message, and the outlets will begin to appear. Though we'll probably have to pay for that juice, along with the pretzels.


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