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Airport Terminals Are Designed by Luddites

January 17, 2008 Travel 30 Comments

In the last 13 months I have been through airport terminals at St. Louis, Oklahoma City, San Jose, Kansas City, San Diego, Phoenix, Charlotte, Miami, Atlanta, Boston and at the moment, Philly. And I had my laptop with me in all these airports.

Our gate in Philly, waiting for a flight to St. Louis, has exactly one power jack with the usual two outlets. Two! Everyone has phones and laptops these days. Several of us have been trading off who gets to use the power. OK, so the Philly airport is pretty old — at least the ‘C’ concourse is. But some of the above list are pretty new and they still lack outlets. I’m always amazed at the number of wi-fi enabled coffeehouses with the same issue.

Most airports want to charge $8 for using the internet yet they fail to give us a place to plug-in. Atlanta was nice and actually had free wi-fi. Here in Philly they have free wi-fi for students during the week and free for all on weekends. I did not hesitate in using my SLU grad student card to get free wi-fi — better than a discount at the movies.

If I were designing the ideal airport gate I’d have a long table where those of us with laptops can sit and have the computer in a comfortable position — and plugged into power if necessary. This need not take up too much room, just not everyone needs the same type of seating.

Anyone reading this that has anything to do with airport design or even coffeehouses, anything with lots of laptops and wi-fi, give us power to plug in!


Currently there are "30 comments" on this Article:

  1. Mike says:

    Not that I disagree with you, but obviously, the lack of outlets in the coffeehouses is to keep the traffic flowing through and to free up tables for others (who would like to sit and talk and don’t need the power.) And the lack of outlets and comforts in the airports leads directly to creating demand for the airport lounges, which are easy (yet costly) to join and are full of comfortable places to sit, plenty of refreshments AND places to plug in and (surprise, surprise) Wi-Fi.

  2. Scott O. says:

    I don’t have a laptop or a cell-phone…
    And isn’t this a case of demanding a level of hyper-convenience? Why, pray tell, should an airport, (or coffee shop, especially) give you free electricity? There are solar powered chargers out there if you need to run your lap top non-stop, or extra batteries.
    I am going to admit one of my pet peeves is the “I just landed call” call that seems ubiquitous these days. How did people manage their lives for the last 10,000 years without an instant update on which runway everyone just taxied off of?

    [SLP — Yeah, they let people use cell phones as soon as we’ve landed yet heaven forbid if I wan to turn my iPod back on.]

  3. Brad Mello says:

    I put a dirty word in my previous post which I will edit, so I don’t have to wait for my post to be moderated (the word began with an F).

    I’m seconding Scott O. and going further you whiny sack o’ shiet — why the hell should the world revolve around you and the way you want to live? You’ve just traversed across a large land mass burning oh so much fossil fuel because it was convenient for you and now you want electricity so you can do your blog… WAKE UP BUSTER, the world doesn’t revolve around you.

    [SLP — It doesn’t?  How long have you known me Brad?  What about all those other folks also using laptops and seeking power? I guess we’ll have to break down and look into those lounges.  Hey it was late and I was cranky as it has been a long day.  Just had to get a cab as I got the last train which did not run all the way to downtown.  At least I am finally home.]

  4. Jeff says:

    I would assume that most of the airports mentioned didn’t have the technology around (laptops / wifi) at the time of design. Plus they may have to charge a fee in order to pay for such “upgrades” (more power outlets).

    Good post none-the-less

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    10-20 years ago, when most of these terminals were constructed, laptops were a rarity. 65 years ago, when they built the Pentagon, they only put outlets in the hallways (all the typewriters were manual, and there were no floor lamps). Yes, times change. The challenge with providing an outlet for every flying computer is the electrical building code. You can only put so many outlets on each circuit, so many circuits on each breaker panel, so many panels on each transformer, etc. Putting 20 or 30 outlets at each gate, for occasional computer use, is a lot different than putting in 2 or 3 for cleaning and maintenance, especially when it’s extrapolated out to 30 or 50 gates. The better solution – buy some back-up batteries (and keep them charged). Or, better yet, bring a plug strip with you (and maybe start a trend) – sharing is a lot easier when nobody “loses”. And why should those of us who leave our computers at home/work have to pay extra to support your habit? Those plugs aren’t free!

    [SLP — The Oklahoma City terminal, for example, is completely new within the last few years.  It was designed and built in a post-9/11 era — clearly within the laptop and cell phone era.  Boston’s Logan, in terminal B, looked fairly new.  They had these cool light fixtures at our gate that were vertical elements — triangular pieces about 10′ high.  Clearly powered (duh) and attached to the floor so electric was distributed.  Each of these could have had an outlet in the base of each for minimal cost.  The designers are not thinking about laptop/phone use.]

  6. john w. says:

    The 14-hour battery is on its way.

  7. Dole says:

    I would like to say two things. First, the “I’ve just landed” call serves a real function. I live about 25 minutes from the airport. As soon as I land, I make a quick phone call to a family member that I’ve just landed; they arrive at the airport just as I am picking up my luggage from the carousel. It avoids having extra cars circling the airport and drawing the ire of security. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Second, the electricity situation. All the people leaving comments about how power outlets are unnecessary should realize that delays are getting longer and longer and it makes sense to be productive and do some work during long delays. Also, the people listening to Ipods or powering their portable dvd players probably ‘bug’ the airline people less and wait more patiently. Also, I don’t think it’s selfish to make suggestions about ways to improve the airport………………………. Couldn’t the same comment from Scott O be the same for any situation; if you recommend changing the placement of cart corrals at the grocery store Scott O would say “oh, you just want hyper convenience of having the cart corral closer to where you park!” see Scott O, nearly all advances in conveniences and design came about after people thought of better ways of doing things.

  8. Scott O. says:

    Well, yes. I love this blog, I’m just pointing out that if you need battery power, there are probably easier solutions than re-wiring an airport. I do think folks these days have an “unnatural” addiction to things that require power, and that when your battery runs out, just take a deep breath and realize it will be okay.
    I know that call serves a purpose for some people. Its just a pet peeve. I am a grouch.

    [SLP — Yes, often I just accept that I won’t be on the internet and take a book out of my bag and start reading.  However, after paying $8 to connect to the internet and I have two hours left before my flight might leave I don’t want to have to sit on the floor behind a ticket counter as I did at Logan.]

  9. Tino says:

    Some of the blame for this should probably be attributed to the strangely feudal social structure of the world of air travel.

    On the ground, in the U.S., most people are middle class. In the airport and in the sky, you are, broadly speaking, either a king or a peasant. You’ve either paid thousands of dollars (or cashed in frequent-flier miles) for a first-class ticket, in which case the airline kisses your ass; or you have not, in which case most airlines increasingly tend to look at you as an annoyance rather than as a paying customer.

    In the airport, the first-classers and frequent-fliers have access to the airline’s club lounge, where beverages, snacks, free wi-fi, tables, chairs, and electricity are easily available. The far larger coach-class peasantry is out in the terminal, where all of this is either unavailable, expensive, or an ordeal.

    Worse, since the people the airline has decided it values as customers are all in the lounge, they’re less inclined to care about problems & inconveniences in the terminal.

  10. Tim E says:

    As a frequent business traveler who has done its share of outlet hunting and now a member of BOINGO (I think that it how it is spelled – wireless internet provider common in a lot of airports now). Finding outlets in it itself could be part of the road warriors olympic games. Better yet, be part of a reality show.

    That being said, I think gates at Love Terminal in Dallas or maybe it is Houston Hobby have the standup benches/work space with stools and outlets. They are nice and wish St. Louis would install a few at each gate or even every few gates in its improvement plan. In the meantime, I find it easier and more convenient just to make sure my batteries are on a charger the night before travelling and made it a habit that pertinent emails are taken care of before travelling. Otherwise, you end up spending half your time looking and paying a premium for those services. That doesn’t change when you leave the airport either. Just go to FedesKinkos.

  11. bart says:

    the cost of “electricity” is off set by what can be accomplished with a cell phone and computer. give me a break. any one who gets pissed because some one calls to tell some one they just landed needs to chill out and live their life. picking someone up for the airport is a nice thing to do for that person, the last thing they want to do is wait for them or drive in circles. The air lines need to do something to help business and i think ‘free wifi while you fly’ (or something like that) would take the headache out of flying and boost business. I will do anything not to fly because it is such a waste of time and such a pain in the ass. If i could be sitting online, working or just jacking around on CH, i wouldn’t mind the delayed flights as much.

  12. Court says:

    Sorry, Steve. Can’t feel sorry for you and the other Producto-bots sitting on the carpet and craddling laptops since most airports haven’t fulfilled MY request for designated napping stations. Or complimentary chair massages. And a small child to carry my newspaper and carry-on. Kids are so cute!

    Seriously, I’d be willing to wait for a plane in a hog barn if it meant keeping airfare affordable. Considering that airplanes are becoming less a mode of transportation and more a form of transit for people, I think the focus should be less on planning high-rent, convenience-oriented spaces and more on reducing overhead (including energy costs) and keeping airfare financially accessible. I can maybe buy a need for Wi-Fi argument, but not the “I need a plug” one.

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    Getting back to the code issue – fixed loads, like lighting, are figured at their total, actual load, and circuits can be optimized and minimized. Outlets (and circuits) for portable loads, like computers, have to assume that hair dryers may be plugged in as well, without always blowing the circuit breaker. IF airports could LEGALLY put 20 or 30 computer outlets on one circuit, your “problem” would be a lot easier to “solve”. But until low-load equipment (like computers) comes with a different kind of plug AND the electrical codes are adjusted to that reality, we’re stuck with a maximum 8 grounded outlets on each 15 amp branch circuit, at an installed cost of ±$50 per outlet. Spending a thousand dollars per gate to add 15 or 20 more outlets IS an issue, especially for airlines who are facing ever-increasing fuel costs and ever-increasing resistance to higher fares. (And yes, it is an airlines decision – they fund airport construction through the landing fees they pay and pass onto their customers.)

  14. toby says:

    The bigger issue here is airport terminal design PERIOD. Most all terminals follow the same architectural recipe, and why? At this point, it’s monkey-see-monkey-do rather than creating buildings that serve the people waiting for the planes.

    Think of small regional airports that are basically a metal barn aside a runway. That’s a serviceable building, and to the point. The airport terminal can take any shape it wants, and it’s not so much about square footage as how to organize and move people.

    AThe terminal could be a 10-story skyscraper as long as it has a way to get people to the airplane. The terminal could be in the form of “guest suites ” for check-in, as long as it got people to the plane.

    Airline terminals have repeatedly adhered to “form follows function” to increasingly maddening ends. Before getting to modern communication electricity needs, I wish they’d start by thinking of how people want and need to use the space and work out from there. After all, it’s PEOPLE using airlines that keep everyone funded; cater to the needs and functions of the people and maybe increase rates of air travel because it’s no longer as degrading and alienating.

  15. Jim Zavist says:

    Southwest succeeded here while TWA and Ozark went away simply because they offer(ed) cheaper tickets. A minority of people will pay extra for more. The vast majority of fliers want to pay as little as possible and then gripe about lousy service, poor attitudes and inadequate facilities. Cattle travel is what cheap fares buy. Just wait until they decide to put pay toilets on the planes . . .

  16. LisaS says:

    For shame, JZ, don’t go giving them ideas!!!
    Seriously, though, he’s right: most people are interested in the lowest price, period. (I don’t claim to be any different: I fly less than once/year, always on award travel) Targeting the lowest common denominator means that we will continue to suffer with dwindling service, crowded waiting areas with nowhere to sit except the (grimy) floor, and lack of conveniences (power outlets, clean bathrooms, working water fountains) that would make travel more convenient/pleasant for everyone.

    [SLP — Business travelers make up a large percentage of those flying these days and while companies certainly look for the best deals they also want to make sure their employees are happy and productive.  How many vacationers do you know flying with laptops?  Like others, I was trying to use the time productively to get caught up on work-related issues.]

  17. ex-stl says:

    Jim Z:

    I’ve always liked the idea of coin-operated elevators as well.

  18. Brad Mello says:

    Oops, that’s right Steve, I forgot, the word does revolve around you (place smiley emoticon here). Haven’t you ever heard of a good ol’ fashion paper back to pass the time while traveling? And you’re in graduate school — did you have reading to do!

  19. Thor Randelphson says:

    “However, after paying $8 to connect to the internet and I have two hours left before my flight might leave I don’t want to have to sit on the floor behind a ticket counter as I did at Logan.”

    Welcome to Logan Airport and the City of Boston. Please enjoy your stay!

    What a way to welcome visitors and show business people that you are business friendly.

    St. Louis can use all the help it can get and things like free wifi and plentiful power outlets can go a long way to leave families and business travelers with a positive impression of the City.

  20. Dennis says:

    I think I’ll just keep taking the train.

  21. GMichaud says:

    Trains would be a good alternate when a national high speed rail system is created that does not require you to go hundreds of miles out of your way, and when there is investment in local mass transit systems to complete a comprehensive system.
    It works in Europe, Japan and other regions and countries around the world, so it can be done. But of course America has to have an urban planning scenario that gives the advantage to chain stores and their mega corporate partners. After all how else can you become a zillionaire if you don’t buy and sell mega properties? These transactions come complete with tax breaks courtesy of political friends in high places.
    Trains could and should be an alternative, but America needs alternative governance first. Then maybe Steve could find an electrical outlet or two.

  22. Tim E says:

    Look at the money, essentially the airport supports itself on revenue from three main sources. All of them being users fees. First, they charge airlines. Lambert, like a lot of airports, will charge varying rates to different airlines. Lambert has been aggressive in securing Southwest, Frontier and now Airtran by giving them deals. Personnally, I’m in favor for as much competition and as many connections as possible. Second, they charge concessions. Which I pay for because of my caffiene addiction. I haven’t found a cheap cup of joe yet. Finally and I believe the biggest generator of airport revenue is boarding fees. In essence, each time you buy a ticket you are actually paying an airline a big chunk and the airport a small chunk. I believe the federal government allows a maximum fee of $4.50 per boarding to be charged. This is why boarding numbers are so huge. More boardings, more money.

    So the question is, are you willing to support an increase in the boarding fee if it means additional revenue for Lambert to rebuild/refurbish its 50 yr old terminal and offer more amenitites like free wi-fi? Another way, should Lambert increase gates fees even if it means they are takeing the chance of losing an airline and thus offering less competition and connections?

    [SLP — Well, they are already updating the terminal as I noticed last night.  But they are not going to the extent of new electrical systems.  Here is the deal — as I indicated I am willing to pay, at times, for internet access.  I’d much rather pay $8 than lose a deal.  However, I need to be able to have my computer on and it would be nice to have it sitting on a table and plugged in rather than being stuck in some corner fighting over a single outlet.  Perhaps if they made it more comfortable to use the computer more people would take the time to shell out the eight bucks to get connected.]

  23. ex-stl says:

    sorry for going off topic of the main post

    GMichaud and Dennis:

    I seem to remember 3-prong outlets from my last trip on Amtrak (NE/Mid-Atl. corridor and not Acela and not in the station) – although those tray tables do suck. And for the folks who like peace, sometimes they have quiet cars with john-size booths by the doors to take cell calls (DC to NYC counts as a commuter line unbelievably). Different techno issues re safety and power supply, granted. but someone was thinking.

    There was a cool article (in the New Yorker?) a few years back reporting on terminally ill people in the Dakotas with really no other way to get to the Mayo clinic in MN facing severe cutbacks in service. If more “red” states get involved in this and as gas spikes ever greater, maybe we’ll see a change in rail service. Unfortunately even in the highly used NE corridor, most of the tracks are so convoluted that true high speed will never happen in our lifetime. Chicago to Denver via KC, maybe. Perhaps even Houston to Minneapolis.

  24. Tim E says:

    Too bad we couldn’t get a comment from Lambert on this one? They certainly have recognized that their old gates don’t conform with a multitude of changes in travel. I also recognize that some furniture upgrades isn’t much considering how much they had to spend on all those security upgrades – like a new security area for Gate A. The new arrival/departure monitors was a definite plus. But, I also think that Lambert’s gates needs a major upgrade for the next fifty years. That would be on top of the Lambert Experience project to create an enclosed departure/arrival area between the parking garage and Main Terminal

  25. Jim Zavist says:

    How about a positive solution? Has anyone figured out how to provide a power strip using usb ports? It seems like a lot of the newest stuff uses usb connections to recharge their batteries instead of those power blocks and round plugs. Creating a system with 20-30+ ports wired into a single transformer that could then be plugged into a single outlet could get around 15 amp circuit limits . . . a business opportunity perhaps?

  26. Jim Zavist says:

    “Business travelers make up a large percentage of those flying these days and while companies certainly look for the best deals they also want to make sure their employees are happy and productive.” Productive, yes. Happy, not so much, unless you’re in upper management. My experience is that price comes first, schedule second, and employee happiness a distant third. You show up when you’re told to (usually at the crack of dawn) and get back whenever the airline can make it happen.
    To address your point, yes, making airports more business-traveller friendly would be appreciated. The reality is that the less time anyone spends waiting would be a bigger improvement. There are more cost-effective solutions than investing in outlets that will likely be unneeded in a decade. Force the carriers to have rational schedules. When an airport like LaGuardia can only handle 80-some operations an hour in good weather, while 90+ are scheduled some hours, guarantees failure and frustration. I’m also seeing a steady increase in video conferencing – a virtual trip using VoIP beats two hours plus each way in transit for a 1-2 hour discussion.
    Sure, travel, for business or pleasure, will never go away. And with our population growing by 50% every 40-50 years, it’s going to get more crowded. The real answer is more terminals, to spread out the load. The trick is getting carriers to serve those “secondary” markets and to convince passengers to use those flights. We face the conundrum of wanting frequent service to multiple destinations, yet complain when all our “choices” cause congestion and delays. We have a perfectly good airport over in Illinois that has only a few flights a week. If you chose to fly out of there, guess what, you could find an outlet, but you probably couldn’t find a flight to the northeast . . .

  27. Urbanian says:

    Jim Z suggested bringing a power strip. Great idea, but I don’t think I want to carry such ungainly extra paraphernalia. How ‘bouts bringing a 3-way adapter? I’ve got a little orange one about the size of a golf ball. This way you wouldn’t have to “wait your turn”, and the guy behind you could power up too. Can’t imagine the bloke who got there first would make you wait if it is no inconvenience to him. If you’re feeling especially neighborly, take two 3-ways, and make friends!
    I wouldn’t worry about using too much electricity. Modern electronics are pretty stingy eaters.

    [SLP — That is a really good suggestion on something to keep in a travel  bag!  I’ve also been in hotels where trying to find plugs for the computer, phone, and camera are hidden in hard to reach places — this would be helpful in those cases too.  It doesn’t solve having to sit on the floor in a gate to get power but it does help out with sharing.]

  28. Jim Zavist says:

    BTW – Denver International Airport has free wi-fi throughout the airport . . .

  29. Scott says:

    I think Kansas City does have free wifi connection/hookups, it’s actually one of the nicest airports in the country.


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