Don’t touch that button… oops too late

by George Taniwaki

In terminal S at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, they retrofitted all the old seats by adding outlets and USB ports. Very thoughtful!

The outlets are  inPower Flex model 2. They are specifically designed for those black leather and chrome seats you see at the airport. They attach to the beam underneath the seat with a bracket. Each unit has two ground fault circuit interrupt (GFCI) protected, 3-prong polarized outlets and two high-current (2A) USB ports protected by the same GFCI.

GFCI outlets are required wherever there is a chance stray current could pass through your body, like in a wet area such as a bathroom, kitchen, or outdoors. A standard GFCI outlet has two buttons and an indicator light. A green light means the outlet is active. To check if the GFCI protector is working, you press the test button, which creates a short. The GFCI should shut off power to the outlet and the indicator light should glow red. To force the outlet back to the active state, you press the reset button. Simple right?

Not exactly. In a public setting, the facility owner is responsible for safety, even if the guest is doing something dangerous. The airport staff didn’t want passengers to electrocute themselves by bypassing the GFCI. So they removed the reset button. (See the hole in the middle of the outlet in the photo above.)

But they didn’t remove the test button. (See the white button at the top of the outlet in the photo above.) Of course, people press the test button, maybe accidentally, or out of curiosity to see what it does, or even maliciously. This disables the outlets and USB ports, making them useless. There is no way for a passenger to reset the outlets or ports back to their active state after this happens.