Laptop power on planes: observations, tips, and lessons

Before I get into some recent experiences getting laptop power on planes (both failed and successful ones), I wanted to give a plug for seatguru.com. If you want to know which seats are most comfortable on a plane (with detailed commentary on specific seats), whether or not power is available at the seats, etc. go to seatguru.com. It’s an awesome (and free) service — check it out.

Recently, I decided to get the gear necessary to get power at my seat on planes. For years, I have always packed an extra battery to get me through long flights, but my recent trip to Bangalore and London (over 50 hours in planes) made me reconsider. Many domestic flights offer in-seat power, though it doesn’t seem to be well-promoted or even understood at a basic level by the flight attendants (as I learned on a recent Delta flight — see below). Here’s what I’ve learned about in-seat power on planes (British Airways has a decent primer on in-seat power in their planes that seems to be generally applicable based on my experience):

You need a device called an “inverter”. I’m not sure it was the best choice, but I picked up the XPower Pocket Inverter 100 at Radio Shack just before my trip to Bangalore. The inverter has one plug that goes into the plane power socket and then you can plug any typical two or three-prong device into the inverter using a regular power supply. The inverter simply transforms the plane power into power you can use. (If anyone has advice on the best inverter to get, please leave a comment!)

The power jack in the plane is known as an “Empower” jack. It’s not the same as a cigarette lighter adapter (it’s substantially smaller), though some inverters come with a cigarette lighter plug that you fit into the Empower interface on the inverter so you can also use the inverter in a car. I don’t think I’ve seen an Empower jack anywhere but on a plane, so the plug looks unusual. In fact, I would go as far to say that the Empower interface is poorly designed since I had some trouble with it (more below. . . the photo with this post is of an Empower plug, by the way).

Flight attendants might not know anything about the power systems on their planes. On a Delta flight last week, I had checked seatguru.com beforehand for the plane I was taking, and it showed power between every seat in economy. When I boarded, I asked the flight attendant about laptop power between the seats and she clearly had no idea what I was talking about — she said there was no power for laptops in coach. Sure enough, once I sat down, the Empower power port was easily found between the seats, and it worked (mostly anyway).

Don’t assume the power port at your seat will work. On four legs of British Airways flights, I had these experiences: 1) power worked flawlessly, 2) power didn’t work at all, 3) someone had stuffed chewing gum and paper into the power port and I wasn’t willing to dig it all out, and 4) power worked, but only if I held the Empower plug from my inverter at a certain angle with one hand (roughly the same experience you might have with cheap headphones that you have to twist to hear an iPod or other audio device). Of course, this makes it difficult to type or do anything productive.

On my Delta flight last week, the Empower port that my flight attendant didn’t know about actually worked, but I had to hold the plug in the socket to keep it connected properly, which was kind of a pain. It might be my inverter, but the Empower interface just doesn’t seem to click in tightly. It seems like a flimsy interface in general. I suspect that the tight quarters in planes encourage accidental abuse of the ports when they are being used, which makes the plugs wear out over time, leaving a looser fit for future users.

The inverter can get really hot. This could be worse with the particular inverter I got, but I suspect it’s true across the board. When you’re in a coach seat with your laptop running, there isn’t a ton of room for much else. In my case, the inverter sat on my leg and the heat was pretty uncomfortable — think “twice as hot as a laptop” and you’ll get the picture.

You might be able to use your laptop and charge your battery at the same time — or you might not. I don’t know enough about electricity to understand this, but on the British Airways flight, I could use my laptop but the battery wouldn’t charge. On the Delta flight, I used my laptop and the battery charged. On the British Airways flights, they said you could only use laptops with their power system, i.e. you couldn’t charge iPods or run portable DVD players. This doesn’t make sense to me — anyone have more details?

Overall, it’s a good idea to check seatguru.com and pack an inverter in your carry-on if you might need power on a long flight — but make sure you don’t have to do the work you’re expecting to do on the plane, because you might have problems.

31 thoughts on “Laptop power on planes: observations, tips, and lessons

  1. I found Qantas business seats all have standard electrical sockets for whatever (low voltage) devices you need powering or recharging. This is great – no need to buy expensive adapters and they fit most international plugs. Actually, when I say ‘most’ I only tried US and Australian but if you’re travelling internationally you’d usually carry suitable converters.

  2. Singapore Airlines has standard 120VAC power on many of their long-haul flights.

    I usually fly United for international travel, though, which uses Empower, and only in Business and First class.

    Sometimes the Empower system is installed, but not turned on for some of the seats.

    On a few occasions, I have ended up making minor repairs to sockets which have come loose in the seat panel or which have a jammed or bent pin. My inverter has a pretty long cord, so I can also use the socket in any nearby seats and leave the brick on the floor.

  3. I’m flying to china and i’m looking into this for my flight, i’m going to look into this inverter now, i hope its not too expensive.

    Here is what continental has to say:

    Continental Airlines’ Boeing 767-200, 767-400 and 777-200 aircraft are equipped with the EmPower® laptop power system that provides a laptop power port in each BusinessFirst seat. In Economy class on the Boeing 767-400 (H), laptop power is available in rows 10-15; on all other 767’s, laptop power is available in rows 16-23, on the Boeing 777s, in rows 17 – 23.

    The laptop power system is available to customers with the following restrictions:

    Use is permitted only when the aircraft is above 10,000 feet in altitude and the flight attendants announce that personal electronic devices are allowed.
    Passengers may not charge batteries while aboard Continental aircraft. Please remove all rechargeable batteries when using the power port.
    All adapter cables must be EmPower® approved.
    Please Note: The use of the system is at your own risk. Continental is not responsible for loss of data or damage to computer hardware and software

  4. First I don’t like inverters – too bulky. I have cigarette lighter adaptors for my Palm Pilot, cell phone/MP3 player and my Mac Pwerbook. I recently also added a lighter adapter for my Dell notebook but unlike the Apple equivalent it also includes a bulky box similar to the ac adaptor.

    These all work great on American flights with the Cigarette lighter outlets.

    So the problem becomes how to adapt from a cigarette lighter plug to an Empower plug? I found such an adaptor (Empower plug + about 12inch cord + lighter socket) via Google. However first time I tried it on a BA flight from Dallas to London it did not work. The light on the outlet was green but when I plugged in the light went off presumably indicating some sort of bad connection. So for now I’m in troubleshooting mode to figure out what’s wrong with the adapter.

  5. On some Airbus planes, there are apparrently some auxiliary outlets for things like vacuums (this is according to a pilot who flew one regularly) usually one in the back, two in the middle, and at least two up front. I wonder if this is the case for all planes?

  6. Is there a way to turn off the laptop battery charger and thereby reduce the amount of power necessary to run the laptop? This should reduce the heat and the likelihood of blowing a fuse.

  7. Aer Lingus has 120V power sockets in their premier class seating in their new Airbus A330s. It’s quite an odd choice, given that Irish appliances are all 230V, but doesn’t really make much difference as they’re really only used for laptops and almost all laptop power supplies can be used on either 110V or 230V.

    They’ll provide a pin adaptor for anyone with an Irish (UK-style) or European plug.

    I suspect the logic is that a) US plugs are much smaller, so the outlets can be easily integrated into the seat console and b) there’s less risk involved i.e. a 230V only appliance will just run at half power if connected to a 110V outlet, where as if a 110V only appliance were connected to a 230V outlet, there’s a risk of overheating and fire.

  8. On AA 767 that I fly on quite often, I found out that, as long as my battery is not fully charged, using the computer plus charging makes the power to turn on and off indefinitely (too much power needed ?). So what I do is, first I wait for the battery to charge completely and then use the computer. My new power inverter comes with an inside fan so it does get hot that much.

  9. Quote Rick “Is there a way to turn off the laptop battery charger and thereby reduce the amount of power necessary to run the laptop? This should reduce the heat and the likelihood of blowing a fuse”

    Why not just take the battery out of your laptop and then plug it in. Then it wont try and charge the battery meaning less power needed.

  10. I have just flow with British Airways from the UK to the USA and my EmPower to Cigarette lighter adapter did not work on either leg (outbound 777; retrun 767) of the trip.

    On both legs using both my seat and my neighbours seat the adapter did not latch properly, the green LED in the seat stayed on, and my inverter refused to fire up.

    The invertor is definately working because I tried it in the hire car.

    Can anyone supply the pinout of a working Empower to Cigarette lighter socket, so that I can check out the wiring of my adapter.

  11. Buy a power pack with a built in inverter. Charge it before you leave, and you won’t have to rely on the airplane’s power..

  12. I am flying coach on an American Airlines Boeing 777 later this month. Seatguru.com seems to indicate that there is a power outlet at my seat. Does anyone know where exactly on the seat I will be able to find it (ie under the seat cushion or armrest)? I have never been able to locate the power outlet in any seats in coach.

  13. I’m flying AA from Manchester to Chicago next week and would like to be able to use my laptop on the flight. the AA website suggests that they have “cigerette style” power connections on all planes. Does this mean that I simply need to buy a car/air adaptor for y laptop in order to make it work? Or will the voltage be different meaning I would need something else?

    cheers for any help.

    J

  14. Dell has a slim all in one travel power supply. I don’t like dell products(sentiments are shifting other way). I got my laptop from my new company and they sent a travel power supply. This is a slim power supply that is roughly .75 inch thick by 3″ by 5″. Its a 100% better than a brick. At anyrate, its has the empower cord, cig lighter cord, ac cord that is 1 foot, and ac cord that is 3 foot. I like the one foot ac since I have a desktop power and ethernet outlet. most hotels do. So when I do travel I will post the review on this adapter for future users of dell laptops.

    needless to say I am impressed by this powersupply, Apple got beat on this design.

    a

  15. I am flying Olympic Airlines from New York to Athens in about a week and a half. I am wondering if anyone knows whether they have power outlets in the seats or not. I am debating as to if I should bring along my laptop on the long flight, but I only want to if I can use it the whole flight. I have a iBook G4, I only have the AC adapter, so I may need to get the empower.

    Thanks

  16. Flying coach on USAir airbus 321 from Philly to LAX and using a IGo 85 I had no problem using and charging my Dell laptop and my Pioneer XM radio UNO. Return flight was a similar experience. These planes had the new Empower plugs at the end of the armrests. 5-6 hour flights, power all the time.

    I find that Northwest planes typically do not have a charge port in coach. These are older planes and most have not been updated to have power ports.

    Try seatguru.com, it is fantastic advise on seating most any airline and aircraft!!!!

    Walt

  17. Laptop Power Outlets!? - ITYT Travel Forums

  18. Im flying from JFK to Tokyo and I am glad I found this post. The boeing 777 i am going on has DC power, now I am hoping the adapter I need to buy won’t be too expensive.

  19. I rely on in-seat power for a small medical cooler and the casual attitude exibited by many airines is a pain – well actually life-threatening. To be fair the cabin staff do do their best to help.

    Some things to be watch out for are: (1) a change of plane so that you now get 120v instead or empower or vice-versa; (2) sockets that don’t work or are brokem; (3) 120v sockets sited so that they will not accept a plugtop power brick (take a short extension lead),

  20. The very best travel power adapter is the Kensington wall/air/auto adapter. It goes from wall, to empower, to cigarette lighter and it’s $129. Basically, it plugs into any wall, car or plane regardless of their systems. If you have an HP, although bulkier, they also sell a wall/air/auto smart adapter that actually has an on/off button for charging your battery so you don’t have to take it out ($129 for this as well).

  21. I have never used a DC/AC power inverter with the empower plug on a plane before. However, I am planning a 6.5 hrs flight and wanted to pick one up to keep the kids happy with a DVD for the trip. I found a Targus 150W peak power slimline auto/air inverter with the empower and cirgarette adapter at Target for $42. It has 1 AC plug and 1 USB port. I contacted the airline United, who confirmed that my flight has the empower port available. I am hoping for the best.

  22. Problem is that the power outlet info is incomplete. You need voltage and maximum amps (or watts) if it’s DC. You need voltage, frequency, and maximum amps if it’s AC (watts is often confused with volt-amps, the two are different).

    In either case, you need to know the connector required.

    In either case, if your device requires more amps or watts than the supply can provide, it will probably shut down.

    In addition, if you plan to use an inverter, don’t do it unless it is certified for use in an aircraft. It is a fire hazard (lots of comments about inverters or “power adapters” getting very hot) and inexpensive inverters may emit high levels of RF interference (which can apparently, under certain circumstances, interfere with aircraft communication and/or navigation systems).

    The airlines went to the trouble and expense to provide this feature, but don’t seem capable of providing a full description.

  23. Empower adapters(British Airways) can be boughr from Magellans.com. This is an Empower connector coupled to a cigarette lighter socket.

  24. I need but cannot find a two prong to three prong adapter to seat inside an airplane power source. Nothing I’d have thought of an exotic nature; just your standard U.S. prongs. Has anyone found one or can you explain why I can’t find one?

    Many thanks.

    • Wikipedia says Empower DC is rated for 75W. I have noticed that if I try to plug a large notebook into one (via an inverter or directly) a circuit breaker appears to trip and I get no power. I tested this by plugging just the inverter in (no load, green light), then the PC in (load, no power), in the same socket. So some issues may be current limitations rather than bad sockets.

  25. Okay, I reserved a coach class seat on AA B777 flight (Flight 153/154 ORD-NRT). Looking for the power port information, the website stated two contradicted things: text said there were DC ports on every coach seat, while the seat map picture showing only certain seats for power ports. I called the airline operator and she told me it was equipped on every seats. Can anyone recently flew confirm this?

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