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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why it’s so hard to find a power outlet at the airport

Ever unpack your devices, plug in and discover you have no charge? You’re not alone.

(Heidi Berton/For The Washington Post)
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Heading out on vacation at Los Angeles International Airport this month and in need of a phone battery boost, Kate Sosin was triumphant after finding seats with power outlets. Very briefly triumphant.

“I sat down, and of course, I went to plug my phone in and it didn’t work,” said Sosin, a reporter for the news organization the 19th. That led to a frustrated tweet — “80% of the power outlets at airports are lies” — and plenty of commiseration.

“This has, like, forever been the case,” they said in an interview. “Power outlets have never worked in airports. They’re just lies.”

As long as there have been personal electronic devices in need of electricity, travelers have lamented a lack of places to charge them. The problem, experts say: Airports are generally old, and gadgets are fairly new. The average airport is more than 40 years old, said Scott Elmore, spokesman for Airports Council International – North America.

“Most airports were built before 9/11, so they weren’t built for TSA checkpoints,” he said in an email. “And, of course, they were built before there were cellphones.”

The New York Times ran a story in 2006 headlined “The Socket Seekers” that described efforts of airports in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Tenn., Anchorage and other cities to add plug-in capability.

“Travelers are usually reluctant to complain about the scarcity of outlets,” the story said. “That is because they are unsure if they are allowed to use the sockets, which sometimes appear to be there for the exclusive use of airlines and cleaning crews.”

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Social media is crowded with complaints from passengers who can’t find a free outlet, or one that works. They direct ire at fellow travelers who hog power, “some gross dude’s legs” they had to reach through to get to an outlet, and airport architects whom they accuse of orchestrating some sort of millennial blood-sport.

Recent years have brought new annoyances, including gag stickers that offer the false promise of electricity. One available online boasts that it is an “easy trick to kill time on a long layover.”

Authorities in Los Angeles warned of a ploy involving public USB charging stations in airports and other locations in late 2019 that they referred to as “juice jacking,” in which scammers could steal information by setting up fake power sources.

Late 2019 turned into early 2020, and travelers suddenly had a pandemic to worry about instead of power outlets. But as passengers have returned to the skies, they have discovered the old problem — now with the added wrinkle of trying to maintain distance from everyone else.

Harriet Baskas, who writes about airports on the blog Stuck at The Airport and elsewhere, said she encountered power problems often in the pre-covid times.

“I have had the experience of finally finding an empty chair by a power plug, unpacking all my gear, plugging in my computer and happily tapping away until looking down to realize the power plug isn’t working,” she wrote in an email.

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She and other travel pros have hacks to avoid the frustration: settling into a lounge if possible, bringing a portable charger or toting a travel surge protector with multiple outlets.

“Not one has ever said no when I ask to plug in, since they can plug in too,” longtime aviation journalist Benét J. Wilson, a senior editor at the Points Guy, said in an email. She wrote a guide to airport power outlets that was last updated in 2019.

Despite the complaints, airports have been improving — one upgrade at a time — which means travelers’ experiences could depend on which terminal they end up in.

Pittsburgh International Airport, which broke ground this week on a massive new terminal, is adding more outlets. Philadelphia International Airport, where finding outlets is “consistently a top priority amenity” for passengers, has added some in past upgrades and “is actively working on plans to increase access to power outlets,” spokeswoman Heather Redfern said in an email. And LAX — the subject of Sosin’s tweet — recently added 300 more places to plug in, spokesman Heath Montgomery said.

Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport even bragged on Twitter in June about the abundance of outlets in a new area in Concourse A.

“We know there’s no such thing as too many charging outlets,” the tweet said.

Or as Wilson put it: “Even as airports try to add more, it’s always never enough.”

Alexandria, Va., resident Nicole Mathis said in a Twitter message that she chooses to drive the extra miles to Baltimore rather than fly from Reagan National Airport when possible because she knows there will be better amenities, including power, in the terminal.

“I applaud airports opening up new terminals with shiny new amenities,” she wrote. “But they mustn’t overlook updating the old terminals.”

Mathis said she doesn’t want to have to worry about her phone running out of power before a flight. And while she has seen some people sit on the floor to charge up, that is not ideal either.

“What grown adult would choose to sit on an airport floor if they didn’t have to?” she wrote. “Yet, faced between a dirty floor and 20% battery remaining before a 5-hour flight, I can’t think of a soul who wouldn’t cop a squat immediately. ”

Elmore said his group’s last survey on airport amenities — conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 — showed 70 airports offering free charging outlets for passengers, up from 59 in 2017. Most outlets are built into seats or tables, which he called “a major infrastructure challenge.” A study released earlier this year, he said, shows airports have infrastructure needs of more than $115 billion.

“It’s not as simple as just running a new outlet,” he said in his email. “You have to meet electrical standards and lay incredible configurations of power and circuitry.”

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Ty Osbaugh,who leads the aviation practice at architecture and design firm Gensler, said airports are looking at a variety of solutions for how much power they have coming into the building and the best ways to distribute it.

When he started working on terminals, he said, the plan for power was “you put a few plugs here and a few plugs there in the gate areas and that was probably sufficient. It was mostly maintenance.”

For a project his firm is working on for Newark Liberty International Airport, he said, the requirement is that every seat has access to power.

“It’s now a mandate,” he said.

Osbaugh said that after a pandemic-forced pause in big growth projects, he expects airports to spend the next few years making “fundamental foundational upgrades” to prepare for future growth.

But as much as airports do to improve the power situation, Osbaugh said, he expects the needs to evolve.

“It’s going to be a never-ending battle to try to get this done right,” he said.

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