The Brancatelli File



July 8, 1997 -- Once upon a time--and isn't it sad that so many frequent-flyer stories now start with "once upon a time"--aircraft cabins were the quiet zones of last resort.

Business travelers wouldn't mind flying too much because it meant they had a few hours of peace. The phone wouldn't ring, no colleagues barged in unannounced and there were no crises that demanded immediate attention.

Once upon a time, business travelers could sit on a plane and work creatively. Or, heaven forfend, think.

Of course, once upon a time was before the madding crowds of leisure travelers paying $99 a seat and before airlines sanctioned "unattended minors" who you end up attending. Most of all, once upon a time was before in-flight telephones destroyed your cocoon of solitude and before portable computers made it technologically impossible not to take your grunt work along for the ride.

All of which brings us to at-your-seat power ports.

The logic of these devices, called Empower points, is undeniable: Since you're gonna use your laptop in flight, you might as well have the juice to power it. After all, nothing on earth is heavier than a 7-pound laptop with a dead battery--unless it is a carry-on bag loaded with enough batteries to keep a portable running during a transpacific flight.

To its credit, Delta Air Lines is installing Empower plugs in its newly revamped 767 business-class cabins and American Airlines has power ports in the premium classes of many of its Airbus flights to London. United and Canadian airlines are also installing Empower sockets. And, in August, American will begin slapping the devices in all of its 767s and domestic Super-80s.

So now, you might logically conclude, all you gotta do is climb on board, plug in your laptop and work your brains out.

Uh-uh. Since business travel now imitates art--and art, in this case, being a Dilbert cartoon--there are all sorts of exasperating caveats:

+ You can't plug your laptop's AC power adapter into an Empower socket. Empower ports supply 12-volt DC power and you need a special adapter cable.

+ Almost every laptop ever made requires its own Empower adapter. The cables not only differ from brand to brand, but they are often unique for each model within a brand. There are at least seven separate cables for Compaq models, five for Apple PowerBooks, eleven for Toshiba laptops and a dozen for IBM ThinkPads.

+ The airlines are not going to have Empower adapters to satisfy most power-hungry laptop users. Delta, for example, places a limited supply on each flight, but a flight attendant said last week that she "never has the cables the passengers need."

+ There may not even be an Empower adapter made for your older laptop. Two companies--Universal Sources and Xtend Micro Products--manufacture the cables. A Universal executive says the firm expects to support "80 percent of all laptops." Xtend says its has developed a line of more than 200 Empower adapters, but many are still in the prototype stage.

+ The adapters aren't cheap to buy--expect to pay $100 a pop--or easy to find. Only a few computer retailers and computer mail-order firms even sell the cables now. None has a comprehensive supply.

So is there any good news to report? Thankfully, yes. The Empower cable will also work as an adapter for your car's cigarette lighter. Also, Magellan's has pledged to supply frequent flyers with every Empower adapter available.

"If it's made, I'll get it for a customer," says John McManus, the man who has developed Magellan's into the irreplaceable source of useful products for frequent flyers.

One other bit of good news: When you can find it and when you have the proper adapter, the Empower port really does work. On a recent flight to Europe, I not only successfully powered up my Apple PowerBook, but the Empower socket even recharged its battery.

Of course, I didn't get much work done. I fell asleep about two hours into the flight and didn't wake up until the flight attendant came by and told me to shut down my laptop in preparation for landing.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.