Airline Electronics: Rosen-v-Virgin America

Two tech items for today.

1) Power Outlets on Virgin America. This week Jay Rosen, of PressThink and NYU, chose Virgin America for a trip to Las Vegas, in part because of VA's tech-friendly features. It offers wifi internet coverage on all trips -- just like the Bolt Bus! and Acela -- and, also like the bus and the train, has "regular" power outlets at seats. Not just those odd "EmPower" outlets you find on some premium seats on United, American, etc, which put out 15 volt DC power and require a special adapter, but instead a standard socket that (presumably) supplies standard 110 volt AC power.

Empower.jpgBut to Rosen's dismay, he found that whole banks of the sockets seemed to lose power at intervals throughout the trip. He sent out a Tweet about this in flight -- and, while still in the air and wondering about his battery's reserve, he had a long Twitter-mediated discussion with Virgin America's PR department on whether they were making false claims about their internet-era features. Whole skein after the jump -- Rosen's opening dispatch, and then the followup Direct Messages.

Interesting tech aspect for the future: whether airliners as presently equipped (and regulated) could actually handle a whole planeful of AC-power-using passengers. At the moment, Virgin America's apparently can't. The company's Twitter messages to Rosen explain that power is automatically cut to certain users when the load becomes too great. (Rosen's argument: Well, don't advertise that you have power throughout the plane, then.)

Interesting tech aspect for the present: the real-time reputational management that companies or institutions must be prepared for. Obviously Virgin's PR department has alerts set up for blog or Twitter mentions and is ready to respond. No larger point, but an interesting instance.

UPDATE: A reader writes to say that Virgin America really should have replied to a complaint about "unreliable AC power during flight" with a link to this famous Louis C.K. riff on "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy."

2) Noise-canceling headsets. Southwest Airlines's route structure doesn't match where I usually travel, so I don't fly on it often. When I do, I'm usually glad (and these are usually short trips). It's refreshing that its staff members act like actual people rather than "staff members" and, compared with some other airlines, seem less unhappy with their predicament and their passengers. They are famous for delivering the mandatory safety announcements as if they were really talking, rather than reciting a catechism from memory. And in the SWA inflight magazine yesterday I saw this refreshingly common-sense touch:SWHeadset.png
The part to notice: the lower right-hand corner announcement that noise-canceling headsets, by Bose, Panasonic, Philips, et al, are perfectly fine to have switched on at any point in the flight.

From a technical point of view, every airline should permit this on every flight at any time. There is no plausible reason to think that noise-canceling headsets could in any way interfere with an airplane's operation. I could give a long explanation, but the short version is: they were invented for pilots to reduce the stress and ear damage that come from exposure to airplane noise. Except in pressurized airplanes where the cockpit has other kinds of noise protection,  pilots -- sitting right next to the controls and displays -- are wearing them, switched on, during the whole flight, notably including takeoff and landing. (They also often have their cell phones turned on right next to them, but that's a different story.) Every hour I've spent flying an airplane has been with noise-canceling headsets running -- at various stages, models from David Clark, Lightspeed, and Bose. That's why I can still hear! There is zero possibility that your headset in seat 13D has any effect on a commercial flight.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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