Airline Electronics: Rosen-v-Virgin America

Can an airplane match the Bolt Bus as a tech-friendly conveyance? The jury is still out.

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:

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.

So why, on other airlines, is there a last-minute war with the flight attendants about switching headsets off? I can imagine one reason: during takeoff and landing, when the flight crew has to entertain the possibility of an evacuation, you want to remove any barrier to getting the passengers' full attention. If an airline explained it that way, OK. But when I've asked attendants about it (nicely!), I've always heard that this is part of the "anything with an Off/On switch must be turned OFF" no-exceptions drill, which makes as much sense as being sure that your digital camera is turned OFF.

This is a tiny point, so why mention it? Because the headsets-off rule has the drawback of other "safety theater" routines: an insistence on pointless restrictions can, over time, undermine respect for the rules that really matter. So congrats to Southwest for a minor but welcome step toward common sense. (For another time: why the "cell phones turned off" rule is slightly more plausible, even though it is obviously never enforced and therefore not taken seriously.)

After the jump, the Rosen-Virgin America chronicles.

Here is the Twitter stream between Jay Rosen and a Virgin America rep. Newest messages are at the top, so read from the bottom up. It starts, at the bottom, with a Tweet from Rosen to his many followers, and then switches to a Direct Message exchange between him and the company.

Virgin AmericaVirginAmerica
at every plug before being certified. Our team is currently testing new designs to remedy this issue and we appreciate your feedback.
18 hours ago 
Virgin AmericaVirginAmerica
the wave. These thresholds are set for safety in accordance with FAA regulations. Similarly each aircraft is tested to proved full power
18 hours ago 
Virgin AmericaVirginAmerica
to prevent surging. Charging components within laptops have very sharp charging sine waves and the lower the stored power, the more extreme
18 hours ago 
Virgin AmericaVirginAmerica
Hey Jay - I discussed with one of our engineering managers and he informed me that the plugs have set thresholds where power will shut off..
18 hours ago 
Jay Rosen jayrosen_nyu
You should stop saying you have power at every seat; it is hurting you to be wrong!/magicandrew/statuses/27690169683
18 Oct at 04:21 
Jay Rosen jayrosen_nyu
The issue is you are making a false claim. You cannot supply power to every seat. I plan to talk about this on Twitter; others are on to it.
18 Oct at 04:18 
Jay Rosen jayrosen_nyu
It's not sometimes; according to the flight attendants it is regularly. And I tried that trick. It did not work. Flight #260, 23-D.
18 Oct at 04:16 
Virgin AmericaVirginAmerica
Would you mind sharing your flight/seat # so I can share with our Engineering dept? Sorry for the inconvenience.
18 Oct at 03:23 
Virgin AmericaVirginAmerica
Hi Jay - Sometimes the outlets will shut off to protect surging. A trick is to unplug a few times and the power comes back. (cont)
18 Oct at 03:22 
Jay Rosen jayrosen_nyu
Your claim is a lie. I understand the 2 out of 3. But there is not enough power to keep those outlets on and mine has been off an hour+.

[Rosen note: From here up the messages are DM's (direct messages) meaning from Virgin to me like an email, but not posted publicly for all to see.]

Thanks for contacting me, @VirginAmerica, but the fact is your planes don't have enough power to offer it at every seat

Virgin America
@VirginAmericaVirgin America
@jayrosen_nyu Would you mind following back so I can DM some info?

Jay Rosen
jayrosen_nyu Jay Rosen 
For Your Information and the company's, Virgin America's claim to offer power at every seat is false. I am experiencing that fake claim now.!/jayrosen_nyu/status/27690009419