Mobile to the rescue when an airplane trip goes awry

An iPhone and iPad help our intrepid traveler survive flight delays, flight cancellations, and unexpected overnight stays

I knew I was taking a risk flying from San Francisco to Atlanta via Chicago in late February. However, the torture of being stuck in Delta's legroom-less seats gave me no option; although all the major airlines have shrunk their passenger space, United is at least manageable for my 6-foot-1 frame. But as my plane circled O'Hare for an hour waiting for a landing slot due to bad weather, I began to suspect my travel plans were about to go out the window. I eventually arrived in Atlanta 23 hours late, but learned a lot about where mobile tools can reduce the pain of travel delays -- and where they cannot.

I typically fly Virgin America because it has both decent legroom and power outlets in its seats, so I can keep my smartphone (usually an iPhone, but I have several types for testing) and iPad charged while I entertain myself and work in flight. My backup airline is JetBlue, which has the legroom but not the power outlets. United is my backup to my backup, as it's the least bad of the major carriers in terms of legroom and amenities. Regardless of airline, I avoid the Wi-Fi service because of the high cost ($25, on average) unless I really, really need to do Web-based or email work in flight; many people think they need to, but the truth is most of us don't.

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The importance of power
United has begun to add power outlets to its planes; you'll see a sticker on the seatback on a plane that has it. On my San Francisco-Chicago leg, the plane had in-seat power ports -- that didn't work. Oops. (A request to all airlines with in-seat power: Please show on the information cards where the ports are and how they are oriented; it's impossible to see them when seated, so I always have to fumble around to get the charger's plugs inserted.)

The lack of power is usually not an issue given the long battery life of an iPhone or iPad, but it can be a concern for some Android devices whose batteries tend to drain faster. However, lack of in-seat power can matter even on an iPhone or iPad if you end up traveling for more than eight to 10 hours. My flights and stopover time that day were supposed to be less than that, so I wasn't concerned -- but Mother Nature had other plans for me. This was one of the few times a replaceable battery would have been welcome!

Lesson: Stay charged. Be sure your mobile devices are fully charged when you leave for the airport. If the airport has charging stations or in-seat power ports, use them while waiting to board. Terminal 2 in San Francisco has in-seat power, as do some seats at Boston's Logan and at New Orleans. Many Delta boarding areas in Atlanta have power-charging stands, as do many terminals at Washington's Dulles airport. But Chicago's O'Hare and New York's JFK have almost no power plugs for you. Keep a list of the airports you use and their terminals that do, and use in-seat power on planes that have them. You never know how long you'll be between power charges when you land.

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