Airports: Powerfully Bad

by alec on February 27, 2006

I’m sitting in Montreal’s Trudeau airport, and noticing what appears to me to be a new trend.  Airports have been capping off the power outlets.  Where have they all gone?  It used to be that you could find a power outlet on a wall or a pillar at the gate, but not anymore.  In recent weeks, I’ve travelled through Seattle, San Jose, Chicago O’Hare, Toronto, and Montreal.  The plentiful power that laptop users used to depend on is virtually non-existant.  Here in Montreal, I am sitting in a phone booth, because it has a power outlet for laptop users.

UPDATE:  There has been a huge amount of traffic on this yesterday since I posted it.  BoingBoing linked it, as well as the CBC.  Clearly it’s struck a nerve.  I’d like to start a Wiki to track airport power outlets.  What is the best way to do this?  My hoster providers TikiWiki and PHPWiki.  Is one better than the other?

UPDATE: Wiki started at http://airpower.pbwiki.com.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin Brice February 27, 2006 at 10:50 am

Interesting, I was wondering when the high cost of electricy would force airports to cut laptop users off. :

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Steve February 27, 2006 at 1:22 pm

One word: Greed

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Andy February 28, 2006 at 1:21 am

Morning Alec, thought you might like to know that thet are doing exactly the same at Heathrow Airport. was told that only devices with a valid Portable Appliance Test certificate were allowed to be plugged in due to fire insurance regulations..

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David February 28, 2006 at 2:19 am

The test is not too difficult to carry out, it seems. Don't know if you need to be certified.
At http://www.bluecode.co.uk/patlabels.cfm I've found a couple of standard labels, which are probably easy to buy and definitely easy to print out….

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Jarrett Campbell February 28, 2006 at 2:45 am

As a frequent traveller, I have noticed this starting about 2 years ago actually. My guess is that airport vendors like Laptop Lane and these internet kiosks that offer power for charge insisted that the airport do away with free power alternatives so that travellers would have to pay to use their services.

That said, last week I was in PHX Sky Harbor and not only did I find a power outlet, but they had free wifi in the airport!

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Paul February 28, 2006 at 3:12 am

In the UK, Health and Safety law stipulates that any equipment plugged in must be subjected to a Portable Appliance Test as Andy mentions. By not performing the test you can violate the terms of your Public Liability and/or fire insurance, so the Airports are within their rights to cap their power supplies.

So it has nothing to do with greed and everything to do with bureaucracy. What they could do is provide a "stop/go" test which is an extremely limited PAT tester, and just guarantee the equipments safety whilst on the Airport's premises. Although that would take up time and resources, so it looks like the inconvenience of passengers is here to stay.

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Neil Boothman February 28, 2006 at 4:14 am

That is ridiculous and considering the significant fee's that BAA charge for passengers to pass though it's airports you would have thought that such costs for insurance against any fire risks would have already been covered. After all, I don't think I have ever heard of a fire in an airport terminal being caused by a faulty laptop charger so this really is over reaction or rather just plain penny pinching inconveniencing people who are probably frequent flyers (a significant source of income for an airport) to save a few quid. I'll have to keep an eye on the plug points in my local airport (Newcastle) to see if they start covering them over.

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Chris February 28, 2006 at 4:15 am

Figures. One more way to milk travelers out of some money. Guess I'll be buying a second battery to travel with soon.

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jox February 28, 2006 at 4:51 am

The wifi at the airport is only a week old. we just got it. hows that for high tech. no laptop plugs or internet. that was the case until last week. so this is probably why no one thought of letting you juice up before a flight.

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Eoghann February 28, 2006 at 5:45 am

Does it make sense that they can make a policy about devices being a fire hazard, without producing documentation about the number of fires actually started by the devices in the first place?

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Albert February 28, 2006 at 6:34 am

I had my worst experience ever at the Montreal airport so I'm not surprised about that policy.

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AngerBoy February 28, 2006 at 6:35 am

Martin, are you joking? Do you actually suppose that the tiny trickle of electric power used to juice up travelers' laptops is at all financially significant to an international airport? These places power 24/7 lighting and HVAC, acres of retail space, huge fleets of electric tarmac vehicles, multiple flight-control towers, etc. etc. etc. How could "the high cost of electricity" realistically be a factor here?

Not to mention:
We're talking about a service provided to the airport's customers, after all.

I'm completely flabbergasted.

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daen February 28, 2006 at 6:40 am

I had the same problem in England in the late 90s commuting in to London Liverpool Street from Colchester on Anglia Railway's InterCity trains. The old Mk2 carriages have one main socket at each end, very useful for paleolithic laptops with 90 minutes worth of battery and frequent delays of up to one hour on a 90 minute trip. A paleolithic ticket inspector once told me that my laptop power supply (100W) constituted a clear fire hazard and that the mains sockets were only intended to be used with "appropriate equipment". Turns out that the "appropriate equipment" in question was the clapped-out 1kW industrial vacuum cleaners used by the cleaning staff, so no irony there. Anyway, I got away with it most times by simply discreetly hiding the power supply and cable under the seat.

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Alec February 28, 2006 at 7:09 am

By far the worst experience is at O'Hare. I have walked for miles looking for an open power socket. How do they power the cleaning equipment? Cold fusion? There is a smoked meat sandwich shop on one of the concourses that has a couple of power outlets, but that's all I've been able to find.

Philadelphia airport is a great one, though. Lots of power.

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Neil T. February 28, 2006 at 7:39 am

I've had the same experience at Leeds Bradford Airport. Our student union offers a pickup service for new students arriving from abroad at the start of term to September, and in 2004 we decided to rent a couple of laptops with data cards to allow the students to send an email when they had arrived to let their family know they had got to England safely. Unfortunately we could not plug the laptops in, so we could only offer the service between 10am and 4pm since the laptop batteries would only last 3 hours. When we plugged one in on the first day to charge it up we got haranged by the airport staff.

We didn't run the email service last year and I don't think we'll do so again next year, thanks to the hassle we got.

At the university there are areas with specially-regulated power outlets where students are welcome to plug in laptops and other low-power devices like phone chargers. Why can't airports offer these too? They could even charge a small fee for them. They've appeared on various long distance trains in the UK too, namely Virgin and GNER trains.

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Alec February 28, 2006 at 8:05 am

Any interest in starting a Wiki to track this? My hoster providers TikiWiki and PHPWiki scripts, which I could set up. The idea would be simple — instead of hunting through a terminal for power outlets, just check the Wiki for the nearest gate location with power.

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Natch February 28, 2006 at 8:18 am

Here's a proposal.

Let's take whatever metrics come out of this, and lobby conference organizers to do tie-breaking based on these metrics when they decide which cities to hold conferences in. It's as simple as emailing the organizers of whichever conferences we are personally aware of. I'm sure between the people who particpate, we'll be able to get a few big conference organizers on board. Just a public statement from, say, an O'Reilly to the effect of "We will choose venues with convenience of travelers in mind, including amenities for computer power and connectivity at local airports" would do wonders for convincing a few airport policy setters.

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Jim Estill February 28, 2006 at 8:20 am

Seems inefficient to "charge" people to charge but I am sure people would pay. They already have an airport inprovement fee – just at 10 cents to that. If they are concerned about people using high power consumption stuff like hair dryers – they could restrict the power on each outlet.

Final note – check the washrooms, often there are outlets. Not a convenient place but when you need it you need it.

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Natch February 28, 2006 at 8:25 am

Proposed metric:

Outlets per gate.

Gates are pretty standard sizes. There's some variation for larger and smaller planes, but not more than an order of magnitude.

Common areas away from gates also might have outlets, but these shouldn't count as much because they aren't as useful. It's usually important to be near your gate so you won't miss important announcements.

It's OK if we miss an outlet here or there. As the numbers filter in, averages will emerge.

Let the surveys begin! All we need is a Wiki or some web page to put these up on:

Airport | Outlets per gate | WiFi? | Free WiFi?

That's pretty much all the information we need.

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Adam February 28, 2006 at 8:41 am

No where in your tickets, your purchase agerements, or anywhere is it posted that you have the right to use the power in an airport. Its not a service, and its not by default yours to use. To think otherwise is rude. You wouldn't walk into a wal-mart and plug in your cell phone.
And to think that with the number of travelers that use power points, that it doesn't increase the airports cost, your mistaken.
Airports are there to provide power.. period.

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Alec February 28, 2006 at 8:48 am

Adam, I am not sure you meant to say that "Airports are there to provide power… period".

But nonetheless, by default, for years, airports have been providing power for travellers. They also provide WiFi, for a fee. What's the point of WiFi if you don't have power. It's illogical!

More importantly, with security requiring that you be there two hours ahead of time, the airlines and the airports need to come up with a way for me to be productive during that downtime. That includes powering my laptop.

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Bryan Alexander February 28, 2006 at 10:03 am

It's very hard to find an outlet in some airports, like O'Hare. I'm fond of the emergent social practices around outlet-hunting, like gear-laden people trying to discretely look behind surprised fellow passengers for hidden outlets, and the clumps forming around rare power points. (How do we ask someone to withdraw from an outlet?)

I like the wiki idea, and would contribute.

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Winston February 28, 2006 at 10:26 am

Here in the US, electrical appliances have a "UL listing" (Underwriter's Labs) label which indicates that the device design has been tested and proven to meet national safety codes. If a device is UL listed, there should be no issues for plugging it in.

If a facilities electrical system cannot handle a few dozen laptops being plugged in at the same time, the facility should be condemned.

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Jeff Winkler February 28, 2006 at 11:21 am

Free WIKI- http://pbwiki.com/

Starting a Wiki for this is a very worthy cause. Aggregate the horror stories, and the successes. Give mag writes one-stop shopping to write articles.

I like JetBlue; free Wifi and power outlets. (Except for Boston's Logan, which is trying to shake down everyone)

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Isketerol February 28, 2006 at 11:31 am

I regularly fly between Toronto and Vancouver once a week. Neither airport has a lot of outlets to use, but neither restricts the use of them. The outlets are there, plain to see in the wall or the columns.

Toronto seems to have almost every outlet in use by laptop users or the occasional person charging a cell phone or an mp3 player. Vancouver's outlets are less commonly used, but there seems to have more people using the outlets by the week.

I can understand the reluctance to allow people to use the power oulets as it costs money, but honestly, we already pay enough for the operation and maintenance of the airports in obvious and hidden taxes. The use of the washrooms also costs the airport money, however, "paying a penny" is a practice that has disappeared from these facilities quite some time ago.

If a fair usage policy is at question, I can see that. I am sure that some people may feel that their device is more important than someone else's to charge up, which could invite disagreements. That's however, where courtesy and a reasonable number of outlets for use can resolve the issue before it starts.

To close off, whatever happened to the courtesy 12V power ports on airplanes?

Iskie

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The Red Monkey February 28, 2006 at 12:13 pm

What you have to realize is that your electric bill from your laptop may not be high but what about from the thousands of passengers everyday going through the airports looking to juice up their gear? It adds up and contrary to the belief here is that airports do not operate with huge profit runs. Airlines do not make huge profits and to think you are entitled to an exposed outlet is crazy. And if their insurance requires the items to be certified then TS to you, its their rule, their airport and you have to live with it or don't fly. Its that simple. You power outlet people are probably the same aholes yelling and talking about personal stuff on their cell in public. Rude and ill mannered bunch.

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Steve February 28, 2006 at 6:14 pm

Two words: Trip hazard.

I've nearly tripped over more than one of the darned things.

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Alec February 28, 2006 at 6:40 pm

Let's dissect your argument, Red Monkey.

1) Airports are not owned by the airlines. They are usually owned by governments or private interests. Like many businesses, some are run profitably, some note. For instance, Montreal's airport Authority posted $31 million in EBITDA on $66 million in revenues last year. Handsomely profitable! Chicago's O'Hare posted $124 million in EBITDA on $442 million in revenues in 2004. So, yes, many Airlines lose money, but that's not necessarily related to the services provided by airports.

2) Hydro costs are minimal. Let's say, for instance, that the average cost of hydro in Quebec is 5 cents / kWh (it's somewhat less, but this simplifies the calculation). The average laptop consumes less than 100 watts of power. So, 10 laptop users are costing the airport 5 cents per hour in electricity. The Montreal Airport Authority is making roughly $85K/day in profits. Assuming a 16 hour day (most airports don't operate in the middle of the night), that's $5,312.50 / hour, or enough profit to power the laptops of 1,062,500 laptop users each and every operating hour of the day.

Methinks there must be some other reason for restricting power usage. Perhaps they don't want cords dragging on the floors.

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Sasha February 28, 2006 at 7:19 pm

Adam – the main problem with your argument is that airports are a monopoly, and thus substantially different from the Wal-Mart down the street. You are free to shop at Walmart or not; they are free to let you plug in your phone or not. However, for many types of travel in the world today, there is no equivelant to airplanes, and there is no avoiding your local airport. They are, in effect, government regulated natural monopolies, and as such they owe a certain level of service back to the public in exchange for the high profits they are able to generate. How would you feel if you were a homeowner whose house had been seized and demolished by the Chicago government under eminent domain in order to expand O'Hare, and you went into that airport that you had paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket to be in, and you couldn't charge your cell phone?

As a side note, can you honestly imagine any store that was in a competitive marketplace refusing to let customers use a few pennies worth of electricity?

This is just one more symptom in our society of the idea of the commons breaking down, of the idea of the implicit trust which holds society together and makes it run much more efficiently. Maybe somebody was juicing up hundreds of batteries in the airports at 2AM and selling them on the street corner. More likely, as all of these outlets disappear we will see more and more pay to charge your cell phone stations. On the one hand, it's the free market, they have the legal right to extract as much money out of you as possible. On the other hand, it inconviencies hundreds of thousands in order to effect the bottom line of a very few. As a whole, society loses-and it's the same story all over the country, all over the world. Customers stop being people and become numbers.

What to do about it? Well, may I suggest defacing airport property. More usefully, everybody who reads this post should call their airline next time they take a flight, and complain that the facilities that the airlines are leasing are not up to the customers' standards, that is, they don't have enough outlets, something travellers expect. Got that? Next time you feel pissed, complain to who you gave the money to- they are the only ones with the economic incentive to listen.

The ironic thing, Adam, is that most Walmarts have plenty of available sockets, and I bet you could juice up for a long time before anyone said anything.

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Carbonfish February 28, 2006 at 8:53 pm

The thing that keeps nagging at me is, although airports are in business to turn a profit, nearly all of them are also subsidized by the local, state, and federal governments (here in the States anyway). Part of the cost of the operation of these facilities is already being paid for by "us", the taxpaying public, as well as the travelling public. Frankly, I think that I deserve more services at my local (not to mention my international) airport. Having electrical outlets made unavailable to the people who have already paid for them through their tax dollars (or Euros, or Pounds, etc.), is adding insult to injury.

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Graham February 28, 2006 at 10:44 pm

Here's another vote for http://pbwiki.com/

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Keith Irwin March 1, 2006 at 2:59 am

In particular, at absolute peak usage (battery charging up, screen on full brightness, processor maxed, hard drive being heavily utilized, CD-ROM drive being heavily utlized, PC Card in use, and USB bus power being used), my laptop uses 21 watts. For each hour I'm in the airport, I will use 21 Watt hours, i.e. 0.021 KWh. Even if we assume a tremendously high cost of power like 25 cents/KWh, that still only comes to 0.525 cents per hour. I'd gladly pay that, but unfortunately, the US stopped minting half cent coins in 1857.

When I buy a ticket, it includes landing fees for the airport. Generally they're not too expensive, but they're often several dollars. I think that the several dollars I pay them for use of their airport justifies my use of as much as two or three cents worth of electricity on long layovers. Now admittedly, not everyone's laptops are as power efficient as mine, so they could be using as much as five times as much power, bring their bill up to a full two and a half cents an hour, perhaps needing as much as 10 cents worth of electricity on long layovers. That's still a pretty minute fraction of the landing fees that people pay. Of course, Red Monkey generalizes things by talking about people juicing up devices, but anyone familiar with cell phones, mp3 players, and so forth, would know that they all consume far less power than a laptop. It would be remarkable if a full charge for any portable device cost as much as an entire cent. The fact of the matter is, no matter how you add it up, it's not very much, and the power we get is far less than the money we pay the airport.

And when Red Monkey says "And if their insurance requires the items to be certified then TS to you, its their rule, their airport and you have to live with it or don’t fly." That's precisely what everyone has been talking about doing. We've been talking about figuring out which airports are not allowing people to charge things up so that we can avoid them. It's about exercising our choices as consumers of air travel which includes not just which air line we fly, but which airport we go to. Airports which provide convenient power will get more business travellers than those which don't if the business travellers can find out which ones are which. If we were all suggesting that we should sue the airport, then Red Monkey's statement might make sense, but no one has even hinted at trying to get this fixed through any means other than consumer pressure.

Keith Irwin

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Adam C. Engst March 1, 2006 at 3:48 am

Power is simply not an issue; when writing about this topic for TidBITS a few weeks back I tested the actual power consumption of my PowerBook: less than 30 watts. If the airports were concerned about power, there are many things they could that would be much easier and more effective than policing the outlet usage.
http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=08421

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Alec March 1, 2006 at 6:37 am

http://airpower.pbwiki.com

It's created, and I've put an initial entry in for Montreal, which started this whole conversation. Feel free to contibute. I am not sure how PBWiki works for permissions, but no doubt if anyone who wants to contribute needs permission, I will find out quickly.

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Evan Prodromou March 2, 2006 at 6:15 pm

So, I live in Montreal, I fly in and out of Trudeau airport all the time, and I have never had a problem finding a plug at a gate or in a cafe or bar.

I find the premise of this post kind of ridiculous. First of all, Quebec is a huge producer of hydroelectric power and our local electricity costs are rock-bottom dirt cheap. Second, airports are _huge_ power consumers — with those hundreds of banks of overhead lights, climate control for gigantic spaces, and all the whizbangers and bleepmakers that are necessary to get planes safely into and out of the sky. I can't believe that 2-3 laptops at every gate going all day long would even be the remotest tiniest drop in the bucket.

I'm just not sure this post makes any sense whatsoever.

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Barry Rueger March 5, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Perhaps this is covered elsewhere, but while we're at it, let's also log the availability of WiFi access at airports.

I arrived a couple of hours early last week to Toronto's Pearson Terminal One (YYZ). That's when my (free) ride could handle it, but I figured I could use the extra time in the terminal to get caught up on a variety of tasks.

I was utterly gobsmacked to find out that one of the busiest terminals in North America offers no Internet access at all, save for those crazy standalone Bell terminals.

Vancouver's YVR is not much better, with Wifi by Telus which I have yet to be able to log into despite multiple tries. The e-mail complaint that I subsequently sent them has remained unanswered.

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D.Smyth March 5, 2006 at 6:30 pm

The men's rooms often have outlets for electric shavers. Why is a laptop or cell phone different?

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J.Brann March 25, 2006 at 9:49 pm

Almost everyone who has posted here is a regular business traveler correct? I am myself and I travel about 200 times a year on business, which requires me to travel through many US and International airports. I've found personally I almost always fly the same airline and have joined their business travelers group for flight miles and etc. As the holder of a business or first class ticket I am entitled at most airports access to the Business center. In the business center they have wifi (sometimes at a charge but normally free)and free power.

In todays world of security at airports I advise all of my employees to not use their laptops in the terminal because this makes them a possible target for a laptop thief. However in a business center it is pretty well regulated who can use them to business or first class travelers. I've been in a few airports without business centers and if you ask the people at the ticket counter if they have a safe area you can use a laptop – I've been offered use of an airport security office which also was a Sheriff substation, lost baggage office and a few less than private areas.

If you must absolutely use the common areas of an airport I'd do so between landings in the baggage claim area they always have outlets, the airport folks don't mind if you ask to use them and they typically don't have a lot of use between flights. Also in this area in most airports are the car rental companies they will let you use a outlet if you ask typically. Use the regular business traveler status to your advantage I almost always fly the same airline, use same rental car company, use the same hotel chains – I am sure this describes most of us. Before you yell at a security guard there are no no outlets ask the airline you hold a ticket worth hundreds of dollars for nicely if there is any place you can safely use you laptop which also cost hundreds of dollars but might contain hundreds of millions of dollars of secure business information.

I also advise all of my employees to use a laptop bag that doesn't look like a laptop bag we buy generic back packs and purchase laptop inserts from targus that velcros into any bag.

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Brent April 6, 2006 at 7:39 pm

I worked for the airlines for twenty years and now I run an internet business, so airports and laptops are both areas of interest to me. It's getting harder and harder to find plugins in airport terminal walls, and do you why? 911…..that is why. Precautions are being taken for our own safety AND our annoyance it seems.

Luckily the newest laptops have long battery lives, and if you can handle having your screen settings dim, you can get a long life. I also bought 2 extra battery packs so that I can use my laptop for up to 12 hours with a bright screen. (I hate dim screens…rather be dropped of a horse in full gallop)

I still fly alot and my wife and I have just learned to adjust to the new protocal in airports around the world. Oh….useful tip….when you go to China don't bring a power convertor from Radio Shack and assume you are safe. Buy a power convertor when you get to China. I blew up a good HP laptop with that blunder!!

BT

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George April 13, 2007 at 7:34 am

Recently, on my way to the office, I stopped by the A&W on Taschereauin Brossard. I bought my breakfast and coffee. Because I have a document to finish, I asked the manager whether I can plug my laptop computer in the electrical outlet under my table in the corner. He agreed. I finished my breakfast and then was writing my document while drinking my coffee, common scenery and are encouraged in all cafeterias. At one hour later (less than 2 h) since I entered A&W, I nearly finished the document and my coffee and ready to go to my office, I was appalled to see that the general manger asked me loudly to leave the café/ restaurant in front of all the customers and, obviously very agitatedly, said “enough is enough and please leave!”. I felt puzzled and asked the manager “what do you mean?”, although in fact I was ready to go to my office. The manager said loudly that "my laptop used too much electricity and I did not pay for electricity", acted as if the laptop was “sucking away” all the electricity of his A&W. It is simply ignorant!.

A typical laptop computer of mine is 15 watts. Thus, my laptop uses 1 kw of electricity in over 600 hours. At the current electricity rate in Quebec, it is less than 10 cents per kw ( 5 cents to be exact). Thus the laptop, at most, costs 0.05 cents of electricity for two hours.

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Rayford Mcmaster February 22, 2009 at 8:01 am

Isn't this a repost of an older story?

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