Making The Most Of In-Seat Power On Planes

If you're lucky enough to score a seat on a plane offering in-seat power, it can make life on the road much more productive. But there's still some tricks to follow if you want to get the most from that extra juice.

Picture by johnnyvulkan

Admittedly, in-seat power isn't the issue it used to be, given how much battery life has improved on most laptops. There's no-one offering in-seat power connections on any Australian domestic flights as far as I'm aware, but unless you're flying from the east coast to Western Australia, you'd have to be pretty unlucky to drain the battery during a single journey.

Overseas flights are another matter. If you're the kind of person who can't sleep on planes, then having the ability to plug your laptop in can make the journey pass much more smoothly. Even if all you want to do is watch your own DVDs, having a source of power means not having to worry about draining the power. (Watching movies on planes usually works better if you rip them in advance, but you won't always have the time for that.)

In-seat power is pretty common in business, first-class and premium economy seats on many airlines. On the A380, it's often a feature of economy as well. If you're not sure if an airline you're booked on offers the option, SeatGuru has a pretty comprehensive guide. But if you have scored an outlet, remember the following guidelines, largely drawn from my own in-seat experience.

Make sure you travel with adaptors

Older in-flight power systems used to require specialist adaptors, which often used cigarette-style lighter plugs. Not only was that an extra bit of gear to carry, it was also pricey — I remember paying more than $100 for an adaptor system a decade or so ago.

These days, most planes can accept standard power plugs, but check the exact conditions. Qantas, for instance, can't take UK power plugs — if you've got one of those, you'll need to attach an adaptor. We've always advised travelling with an all-purpose international power adaptor on overseas trips, and this just reinforces the usefulness of that approach.

Don't forget to check if there's also USB ports available in your seat — that can be an easier way to access power if you want to charge mobile devices rather than use a laptop.

Don't overload the connection

Qantas' site contains the following fairly typical warning about using the power connection:

The PC power is configured to provide a maximum of output of 75 watts. If the limit is exceeded by a user, which is possible on new version PCs the power to the user will be interrupted and can only be reset on the ground.

To be honest, I always assumed this was just designed to discourage gadget freaks from connecting a powerboard and charging everything they owned. However, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, I managed to pull this trick off myself: my laptop was running a little hot, and the next thing I knew, in-seat power was gone. I had enough battery power to keep working as long as I wanted, but it proved that the cut-off really does work.

Don't assume it will always be working

That leads to a more general point: on-board technology doesn't always work. I've lost track of the number of flights I've been on where the entertainment system has needed rebooting — a process that can take anywhere from minutes to hours — and when that happens, your seat power may disappear too. Even without that, at-seat power might just decide not to work. So I wouldn't run down my battery in the airport on the assumption all will be good on board. Treat in-seat power as a great bonus, not an essential.

Be prepared to share

At-seat power doesn't always mean power at every seat. On the Qantas A380, for instance, the power outlets are located between the seats, so there's two outlets in a three-seat block. If all three passengers want power access (and can't use the in-seat USB as an option), then you'll need to agree sharing time slots. Getting into a fight with someone you'll be sitting next to for 14 hours is not a good idea, so be nice. As in airports and conferences, sharing power makes sense.

Got your own on-board power tips? Charge straight into the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman wants economy in-seat power on the many 747s he encounters, dammit. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    This is where netbooks come into their own: their portability, small real estate, and low power usage make them perfect in this environment.

    I deliberately take my 65W dell adaptor for two reasons - smaller and lighter, and won't overload the outlet. Together with 4 way powerboard, and I'm good to share for things like cell phone chargers (handy if you use it as a music player), Nintendo chargers (when you have the kids along) and time share laptop chargers.

    If you take adapters, many of the provide 2 connectors. When I travel to Sydney I take travel adapters that have 2 connections for US-style plugs (they're like $5 in Amazon) - so on the plane I use the adapter to be able to plug in two devices at a time (phone+tablet for example). Just be careful and do the math to stay < 75 W.

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