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Hunger Games at the Airport as Fliers Fight for Outlets

Passengers waiting to board their flight charge their phones at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York on Jan. 17, 2014. Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Passengers waiting to board their flight charge their phones at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York on Jan. 17, 2014. Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

By Mary Schlangenstein, Caelainn Barr and Jeff Green

Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Camped out on the floor at a Southwest Airlines gate at Baltimore’s airport, Jacque Biscotti clings to the most precious piece of real estate she can find: space to plug into a wall outlet.

“I’m loading up on games like Minecraft and Battle Bears and Amazon videos and Kindle books,” says Biscotti, 33, who’s juicing up two iPads and three iPhones ahead of a four-hour flight to Colorado with her four children.

At New York’s LaGuardia, Jennifer East isn’t so lucky. She’s lingering in a food court in vain hope of finding an available charging station.

“There could always be more,” she laments.

Across the U.S., device-laden travelers can be seen daily prowling concourses in search of elusive power, while plugged-in fliers greedily squat at gates, lean against pillars and poke behind furniture to top up batteries. Samsung Electronics Co. made light of the outlet drought in a recent ad that depicts Apple Inc. iPhone users glumly tethered to walls as other passengers chug past.

Electricity is “one of the top, if not the top, amenity requested by travelers,” said Shauna Forsythe, chief executive officer of Alliance Airport Advertising in Las Vegas, which has recharging towers at four airports. “The proliferation of devices has just exponentially increased the demand.”

More Devices

In 2000, barely half of U.S. adults owned a mobile phone. Now that figure is at 90 percent, and business fliers are even more connected, lugging an average of three devices, according to Wi-Fi provider IPass Inc. Based on recent travel patterns, that means more than 1.3 billion laptops, tablets and phones will be toted through airports on work trips this year.

“That number is only going to grow in the future,” said Shawn DuBravac, who flies about 150,000 miles (241,000 kilometers) a year as chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association. “It’s not just the business traveler; it’s also the family of five that’s traveling with six or seven devices. Even if it’s a toddler, chances are there is a tablet or a smartphone attached to that traveler.”

There are no nationwide standards for providing electricity for air travelers. In some cases, airport operators lead the way. In others, it’s airlines. The result is a patchwork of power availability.

“A lot of places where I’m at, I’m going behind the gate agent’s podium and finding one of her plugs,” said Ward Bissey, 42, a regional-airline pilot who was passing through LaGuardia last month. “Most passengers can’t do that.”

Feast, Famine

Delta Air Lines Inc.’s LaGuardia hub offers a relative feast of recharging opportunities, with 1,000 outlets spread among three terminals after the carrier led a $160 million facelift in 2012.

Or there may be a power famine. In parts of LaGuardia away from Delta’s upgrades, electricity access remains a challenge, sending travelers to sometimes-unsanitary extremes, according to Cyrus Clemensen, who lives in Denver and flies often.

“Especially the older terminals are more like, you’re sitting outside the toilet on the floor, which is tough,” said Clemensen, 38, a partner at Usable, a digital agency for Web and mobile application development.

Upgrades to 50-year-old Terminal B, also known as the Central Terminal Building, fall to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- not the airlines, as elsewhere at LaGuardia. Adding outlets and charging stations is part of a $3.6 billion airport overhaul to create “a completely modern facility,” said Cheryl Albiez, an agency spokeswoman.

Paying Bills

Whoever pays for the outlets, they don’t come cheap. A new one costs $1,000 to $2,500, including labor, materials and other expenses, according to Turner Construction Co., which has overseen about 30 airport projects in the past decade.

Power while on the ground remains critical to passengers about to embark on flights without power sources. Only about a quarter of the jets flying domestic routes of less than six hours have coach-cabin outlets, according to travel website Fliers also have more time to use devices while airborne with the easing of most takeoff and landing limits.

A report on airport technology access by PCWorld magazine published in December 2011, the most recent available, found an average of about 5.5 outlets -- each defined as a pair of sockets -- per gate among the 40 busiest U.S. airports.

The findings suggest why Samsung struck a chord with its spot on outlet stalking. A U.S. domestic jet carries about 150 people. With 80 percent of the seats filled, that’s 120 fliers in a boarding area with fewer than a dozen openings to power up.

‘Real Priorities’

“It’s one of the real priorities in terms of features and amenities in any terminal project that we do,” said Doug Yakel, a spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, a hub for United Airlines. More than 750 power outlets were added in two terminals in recent years, with the latest updates in January.

Chicago’s Midway, which got a “worst” rating for charging stations from PCWorld, now has “more than 300 individual charging units,” most of them added “in the last year or so,” said Gregg Cunningham, a Chicago aviation department spokesman.

Philadelphia’s airport ranked 29th in the PCWorld review of technology access. The airport now has 116 charging stations with 1,020 standard and USB outlets among seven terminals, according to Mark Pesce, a spokesman. That compares with 2,600 points for power access at a new 20-gate terminal at Dallas Love Field, the home airport for Southwest Airlines Co.

No Rummaging

Incorporating outlets into seats is part of the effort to ensure that travelers aren’t rummaging behind soda machines or tailing custodians to see where their vacuum cleaners are plugged in. So are custom-built desk-style workstations or free-standing towers, which may just draw power-seekers to the center of a departure lounge rather than the walls.

“You have people sitting on the floor all around these poles,” said John Antos, 65, a management consultant from Dallas who flies often. “People are tripping over each other.”

Los Angeles International Airport’s $1.9 billion investment in the Tom Bradley International Terminal that opened in 2013 included the installation of outlets at half of the seats at gates and about 60 work-station counters.

As with LaGuardia, progress can be spotty. American Airlines recently put in two charging stations in Terminal 4 providing 24 power ports -- to serve 14 gates.

“We understand our customers’ desire for additional power ports at Terminal 4,” said Andrew Christie, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based American. “As American continues to remodel the terminal and hold room areas, providing additional power outlets is certainly an item that it being incorporated.”

For Curtis Fentress, 67, CEO of Fentress Architects in Denver, the outlet shortage is personal. He travels two to three times a week and has worked on nine airport design projects. He’s had enough of casing a terminal in hopes of finding an empty socket and then plopping down while his iPhone charges.

“I’m tired of crawling on the floor,” Fentress said. “I’m in a nice suit, and I’m sitting on the floor.”

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