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Power-Hungry Fliers Plead: Socket to Us

Ken Tichacek has become expert at finding places to recharge his laptop and iPhone at airports.

Power strip
Paul Eekhoff | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images
Power strip

He's commandeered a check-in counter at an empty gate. He's unplugged a water cooler and perched next to it. He's seized an electric outlet in the middle of a boarding lane for another flight.

"I held my ground as passengers stepped over me to board," says the Salisbury, Vt., road warrior and management consultant.

Such fervor is common among frequent business travelers, who twitch when they can't tap on their tablets or smartphones because batteries are drained. Walk through any terminal and you'll see people plugging electronic devices into any outlet they can find, even if it's behind a bar or in a bathroom.

Airports and some airlines understand the needs of today's digital travelers and increasingly are making electrical outlets more available.

"Airports recognize there is a demand for power … and have attempted to fill this need through innovative approaches, such as providing charging stations at old payphone banks," says Morgan Dye, senior manager of communications and marketing for Airports Council International-North America, which represents airports in the U.S. and Canada.

Responding to a Growing Need

In a survey in 2010, the council found that 56 of 89 airports reported having electric charging stations for passengers. And, the group says, the number is growing, with airports in San Francisco, Nashville, Oakland and other cities adding stations. Among them:

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport recently added 240 electrical outlets and 204 USB ports throughout the airport. Those improvements include 36 new sets of padded chairs, each with a table in between with two outlets and one USB port.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has added more than 114 plug-in charging units to seats over the last few months, each with two plug-ins. Another 300 will appear before the end of the year.

Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport has promised that its new $2.4 billion Terminal 3 expansion, which will be ready by June 27, will have outlets scattered over the floor near seating areas. The airport plans to add more seating-area power sources at its busy C concourse, too.

Many airlines — such as US Airways , Delta and Virgin America — also are adding electrical outlets in some of their gate areas at some airports, although they say they're only tenants, and that providing charging stations is the responsibility of the airports.

Power Struggles Can Get Ugly

More electrical outlets can't come fast enough for many frequent business travelers, some of whom say they've seen arguments and even fights break out over access.

Avi Rosenthal says he saw two men come to blows because there was only one power outlet to recharge their dying iPhones at Los Angeles International Airport. It was late and the flight was delayed, enough to rile up the cranky crowd.

Rosenthal, a technologist in Harrisburg, Pa., has tried to avoid such extremes by carrying a fold-up six-outlet power strip in his carry-on. Not only does he get to recharge his devices, but he also helps his fellow travelers.

"I take it everywhere," he says. "I then get to play the hero."

Debra Martin, a safety consultant in Kent City, Mich., once got into an argument at an airport with another traveler who was using the only two outlets available in their gate area.

"I'm not sure why we frequent fliers don't have more respect for one another," she says. "We're all in the same predicament."

Since then, she says, she's started carrying a surge protector plug with three plug-ins and two USB ports. At Charlotte Douglas International Airport recently, she plugged it into an outlet under the drinking fountain right outside the men's room.

"I sure got funny looks standing there, like I was stalking the men going in and coming out," she says. "They couldn't see my phone plugged in."

Many airlines are installing electric outlets at airports for their customers. Among them:

•US Airways will add work spaces to its gates at New York's LaGuardia Airport early next year. They'll include charging stations with USB and electrical plugs, and tablet devices available for customer use. Plans are to build similar work spaces at other hubs.

•Delta Air Lines has installed power stations at 19 U.S. airports, including Atlanta, New York's JFK and Memphis. There are two recharging stations at each passenger gate area, each with six outlets and two USB ports.

•Virgin America designed its base of operations at San Francisco International Airport with elevated laptop work tables that have outlets and Wi-Fi. At Chicago O'Hare, the carrier added more outlets and wireless induction chargers. Travelers can set their devices on or near the induction charger and get an automatic recharge.

•Alaska Airlines will go from 30 to more than 200 outlets at its gates at its Seattle hub airport by the end of the month. Plans are to increase the number of outlets at other major cities this summer.

Tichacek, of Vermont, applauds any efforts to add more outlets. He hopes to one day take a trip and not go to extreme measures to revive his phone at an airport.

"Here I am, a very dignified and otherwise highly professional business person, sitting on dirty airport floors and letting people step over me," he says.

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