Really Nerds Only: Final Words on AC Power on Airliners

Following previous entries here and here, on whether you could actually operate an airliner full of laptop users all plugged into 120V AC sockets -- or whether, on the contrary, the necessary power-supply gear would be so heavy that the plane would never get off the ground -- here is one last round of tech-talk reports. This is a sampling to reflect the range of views that have come in.

1) There's a lot of power available, but.... A technically-trained reader writes:

>>Thanks for honoring your nerd readers with this info.

As a PhD physicist and radio amateur, I'd chime in to say that all the difficulties with generating up to 240 Watts of AC power (120 Volts times 2 Amps) show that this is not the right solution. (For one thing, a typical laptop needs no more than 60 Watts. Your lap would suffer dreadfully if the computer was using 240W!) The laptop can't use 120V power directly; it has to be converted to about 20V DC. So direct DC distribution is the "correct" idea, bypassing your AC plug-in power supply and all the waveform issues. Some airlines have supported DC, as you mention, but we run into problems because laptops don't have standardized power connections -- requiring the airlines to sell or rent you an expensive adapter cable.

Power on an aircraft is not in short supply. One engine on a 747 is calculated to provide 87,000 horsepower or 65,000 kW at cruise (Mach 0.9 at 40,000 ft) That would keep about 3 million laptops running happily, if used for electricity. (<<

2) Harrrummpph! Another tech veteran writes:

>>1. This is a subcase of rich people complaining about their situation.
2. You call yourself a "nerd," but you have a bare mailto href on your page. The title has to be *earned*.<<

Point 1: Yes, agreed. Point 2: Hey, it's not my "real" address!

3) It's a taste of the Smart Grid. A reader who gives his (or her) name as M. Simon, and who has developed in-airplane AC power systems, reports:

>>A certain amount of power is allocated to the AC on aircraft. It depends on the flight regime. On takeoff and landing the limits are low, in an emergency they go to zero. The design limits are based on a mix of loads and the maximum that can be allocated. And of course each outlet has a design maximum.

If the total power exceeds the maximum allowed outlets are shut down until the power demanded goes below the limit. A smart grid. In fact the ideas for the Smart Grid were developed in part by looking at how aircraft managed power demand.

If the aircraft electrical systems annoy you well - you have the Smart Grid to look forward to.

You can use my name.... And just to give your knowledgeable readers a hint. I worked for the world's premier aircraft electrical power company. Every one came to us. They still do.<<

4) Not worth the risk. An aviation veteran writes: 

>>I'm not a pilot, but I've ridden around in lots of airplanes from C140s to bizjets, mostly with over-gross collections of tech gear inside, and I hate 110VAC on an airplane. It's a safety hazard, both directly and from risk of fire, especially in a crash.

Laptop power supplies that run on "twelve volts" (i.e., an automobile's DC supply, 13.8 or 14.4 V depending on whether it's lead-acid or NiCd) for around $100. I have one from Kensington that's twelve years old and does both 85-260 50/60 Hz and 12VDC in; it works fine, takes up maybe 10-15% more volume than a "normal" one, and doesn't even get particularly warm.

12VDC to the seat would be relatively easy and cheap. Yes, I know, the airlines don't reckon they can tell their customers "sorry you have to buy something else" because they don't need to run anybody else off; TSA does fine for that. But in this case catering to their passengers is going to get somebody killed....

I'll add: the last time I flew to Europe, which was long enough ago that the majority of passengers in coach didn't have laptops, the airplane had a 12VDC outlet on every third row. I negotiated with the flight attendant to move to a row with an outlet, and had to endure the guy in the seat next to me bitch that there wasn't any 110V for him all the way to Frankfurt.

One outlet per seat in first and business, one per row in coach, would accommodate most people except commuters (DFW -- ORD, for instance). Add the outlets to the seat selection criteria. For a 767-400ER (Delta, no first class, ATL-FRA) that's 36 + 87 = 123 outlets. At 150W/outlet, just under 20KW total, 27 HP or so. The weight of the wiring would be a bigger penalty than the electricity usage, but not to the point adding inverters would be, and emergency people wouldn't have to worry about getting zapped if the thing crashed. Wire it for video at the same time, and take out the entertainment system; push and pull on weight, I bet.

For people who didn't get the hint, the airline could provide a few inverters at $25 a trip.<<

Finally, and after the jump, Authoritative Word from Virgin Atlantic itself.

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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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