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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

April 8, 2013 at 3:10 PM

Is it enough? Sea-Tac Airport adding power to combat ‘outlet outrage’

For years, passengers traveling through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport complained the most about Wi-Fi. Now, we’re demanding power.

I shared how our local airport plans to feed these and other tech cravings in my Sunday column. But there was more to pass on about Wi-Fi and power than I could fit. Here, then, is a better breakdown.

Soon after Sea-Tac’s free Wi-Fi became available, complaints about it dropped as gripes about power outlets rose. Airport officials shared the following chart to illustrate. The blue line tracks complaints about Wi-Fi while the green line tracks compliments about Wi-Fi. The dotted red line tallies complaints about power outlets:

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 7.42.44 PM

Wi-Fi

When Sea-Tac began to offer free Wi-Fi to its passengers in 2010 (after a period when Google sponsored free Wi-Fi over the 2009 holiday season), it was far from the first airport to do so. Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport, launched its free Wi-Fi in 2005.

In March, Sea-Tac’s free Wi-Fi was used by an average of 9,870 clients (think: devices) every day.

As for Wi-Fi quality, it varies at Sea-Tac depending on where you are. Gates in Concourse D get the strongest signal at the moment and gates in Concourse C — particularly Gate C2 — get the worst, according to David Wilson, the airport’s chief technologist. All that will change, though, as construction projects reveal the guts of the terminals, giving airport officials their best opportunity to install new and better tech plumbing. Renovations at Concourse A will soon make those gates the most connected.

Right now much of the Wi-Fi comes off antennas. Eventually, Wilson said, he wants stronger hardware throughout the airport.

The question is, when?

Power

Power outlets at airports have more pull than we might realize.

According to a 2012 study by Intel, 63 percent of travelers age 18 to 29 admitted going out of their way at the airport to find a place to plug in. Thirty-seven percent said they’d sit on the floor, 33 percent said they pick a place to eat based on whether power outlets are around, and 15 percent said they even searched the bathrooms for outlets. The study titled these findings “outlet outrage.”

As Seattle super geek Chris Pirillo put it:

Airlines are scrambling to fill the need. At Sea-Tac, Southwest, Delta, Alaska and United have all installed branded charging stations at their respective gates. But it hasn’t been enough.

Here’s where Sea-Tac says it has installed 432 of its own power outlets since 2011, either under seats or at new charging tables:

  • Power for 176 users on A Concourse.
  • Power for 80 users on B Concourse (Southwest has its own outlets at its gates)/
  • Power for 56 users in the South Satellite (Delta has power poles at gates S1-S9).
  • Power for 120 users on D Concourse.
  • Concourse C and North Satellite are Alaska/United seating; those airlines have a separate solution in those gates.

These counts don’t include outlets that were there before additional power was installed — the ones you see on posts or walls that tend to collect minicampsites around them. Sea-Tac has never tracked those.

Keep in mind, too, that unless a construction project gives Sea-Tac the opportunity to rewire the gates, its added outlet seating is just a nicer version of a multi-socket power cord, and still has to plug in to those old outlets on posts or walls.

Here’s where Sea-Tac says it will add new power outlets through 2014:

  • Power for 100 users on A Concourse.
  • Power for 224 users on B Concourse.
  • Power for 240 users at South Satellite.
  • Power for 24 users pre-security ticketing/bag claim levels.

Will this be enough to satisfy travelers? Guess we’ll see who still complains.

Comparison

There is no official tally of which airports have paid vs. free Wi-Fi (or even no Wi-Fi, if anyone dares) and even less attention is paid to which airports offer extra power. “There’s no real good clearinghouse,” is how Thomas Smith of the Airports Council International put it.

Luckily, we have unofficial tallies. Travel site Jaunted maintains a pretty good airport Wi-Fi map that tracks where Wi-Fi is free and fast, mostly from reader tips. AirportPlugs.com keeps track of available power at airports, though I’m not sure how useful it is.

Will Wi-Fi and power at airports ever be so plentiful we won’t need to track them anymore?

For more on how airports think about Wi-Fi, check out this recent article in the trade journal Centerlines, a publication of the ACI.

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at mguzman@seattletimes.com or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

Correction: A previous version of this post said the Sea-Tac WiFi comes from cell towers. They are actually antennas.

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