Plug it in the air

FORT WORTH, Texas — It's a discouraging sight for busy travelers: throngs of people huddled around a lone power outlet at an airport gate, all of them hoping to recharge their BlackBerries, laptops and other gadgets.

Across the country, airports are trying to bring precious energy more conveniently to millions of travelers who rely on a plethora of battery-powered devices.

It may not be as glamorous as wireless Internet access, but in a year of unprecedented airline delays and cancellations, free, easy electrical access helps make terminal time more productive and less stressful.

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, officials for years have been exploring several ways to pipe in more electricity.

Initially, the airport charged travelers a few dollars to juice up. But it quickly became apparent that unlike wireless Internet, people weren't willing to pay for electricity, said Ken Buchanan, DFW's vice president of revenue management.

"It's like a water fountain," he said. "The expectation is there."

Two freestanding "charging kiosks" located near the DFW's heavily used train system in terminals A and B are the airport's most recent experiments.

Installed a few weeks ago, each kiosk has four seating areas equipped with a small desk and an electrical outlet. In addition, the kiosks have Ethernet plugs that tap into the facility's free Internet connection.

Buchanan said the need is particularly important at airports like DFW, which handles 60 million passengers annually — over 80 percent of them gadget-toting busine ss travelers. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is a business magnet and home to dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including American Airlines, J.C. Penney Co. and RadioShack Corp.

"When we built terminals at the airport 30 or 40 years ago, your power was limited. As long as you had a place to plug in the vacuum cleaner, that met your needs," Buchanan said.

Now, he explained, "these companies want their employees to stay connected at all times."

DFW charges interested companies — in this case Principal Financial Group — $20,000 a month per kiosk, which are covered with advertising for the Des Moines, Iowa-based financial services provider.

Bill Connors, executive director of the National Business Travel Association in Alexandria, Va., says airports are pursuing lucrative business travelers with as many perks as possible.

"The hassle factor and airports isn't all it could be these days. Airports I think are trying to complete with each other to make the experience more pleasant," he said.

At Dallas Love Field, Southwest Airlines Co. is experimenting with charging stations at three gates. The airline has also been testing it at one gate in San Antonio for the past year, company spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said.

Instead of a kiosk, Southwest's prototype charging stations include a counter area at each gate where travelers can plug in and juice up while waiting to board, McInnis said.

They haven't forgotten about young travelers, either: Southwest's children play areas have outlets to charge up portable DVD players and game machines as well.

"Regardless if it's business or leisure, it's all about maximizing our time," McInnis said.

Though most of the offerings are free, at least one company still charges travelers for power.

Brea, Calif.-based Power Station LLC operates so-called "PowerPort" vending machines in seven airports across the country, including Jacksonville International Airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and LaGuardia Airport.

The PowerPort machines feature charging bays where travelers can swipe a credit card, then charge their laptops or cell phones for $4.50 per hour. The walk-up systems also offer wired Internet access at a price of $2 for 10 minutes.

At DFW, Samsung Telecommunications America, a Dallas-based wireless subsidiary of Samsung Electronics Co., struck a deal with the airport to install Samsung-branded charging lounges, which are free to travelers.

The space for the lounges — which feature leather chairs, artwork and plenty of plugs — was freed up in 2002, when DFW built a new train line that loops around the airport to connect its five terminals.

Beyond DFW, Samsung has 51 charging kiosks at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Last month, Samsung installed 50 similar kiosks at Los Angeles International Airport.

The lounge is where hotel revenue manager Tim Severns often waits for connecting flights at DFW.

"It's really hard to fight for the outlets, so a place like this, there's outlets on the floor, there's Internet, it's a great resource," the 39-year-old Las Cruces, N.M., resident said recently. "It's a poor man's admiral's club."

The reception to the free power has been overwhelming, Samsung spokesman Kim Titus said.

"I was out at L.A. for the opening day dedication and people were bumping me out of the way to get in and get at those before we could dedicate them," he said.

Buchanan said DFW hopes to eventually add outlets under every seat in the airport.

"DFW is a huge connecting hub, but in a lot of cases they have a choice of where they can connect at," Buchanan said. "With everything being competitive, which one of those airports will provide the ultimate convenience when customers have a choice of where they want to connect?"

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