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.