Southwest earned high marks for the number of outlets, USB ports, and work surfaces at its gates; but its overall ranking suffered from the company's relatively low level of available onboard Wi-Fi and its buggy app.
At Southwest gates around the country small recharge stations situated between two comfortable chairs are commonplace, as are high worktables with outlets and stools.
Though only 19 percent (105 out of 550) of Southwest's planes now have Wi-Fi service, the airline plans to outfit its entire fleet with Wi-Fi by early 2013.
The Dallas-based airline has released its own mobile app for passengers, which it says its customers widely use for booking flights checking in. But the app has drawn user criticism in the app stores for being slow and buggy, and for having a clumsy user interface.
Nevertheless, Southwest seems to have a grip on its social media channels. The airline's Facebook and Twitter accounts are content-rich, and its customer service personnel reportedly monitor the networks for complaints and questions.
United had no gate-side tech amenities to speak of, but the airline did have a higher-than-average outlet count in the terminals it serviced at the airports we evaluated. If you're looking to complete some work as you wait for your flight, however, you might want to rethink booking United: It had a much lower-than-average count of work desks at its gates (we defined a work desk as a table with a chair and an outlet).
The United Airlines app has numerous features. You can book flights, gain access to airport maps, and get information, and the app offers Mobile Boarding Passes, too. The app's rating would be higher if the user feedback it has elicited were a little higher. Users have noted occasional problems with push notifications, logging upcoming flights (for Mileage Plus members), and outdated gate information.
United's Facebook page wasn't very impressive either--allowing customers to post on its wall, but offering no responses and providing no new information for passengers.
Worse still, Wi-Fi is available on only 2 percent of United's flights--the lowest percentage in our test group apart from JetBlue, which has no Wi-Fi at all. United has a large fleet to upgrade, but the company plans to extend Wi-Fi to all planes by 2015.
7. US Airways
US Airways ranked poorly in our scoring of tech at airport gates, because it offered below-average numbers of outlets, work desks, and Internet kiosks.
US Airways doesn't have a standalone app, but the carrier does support mobile boarding passes in select airports. In addition, US Airways maintains an active Facebook and Twitter presence, so it scored well in social media activity.
The airline offers Wi-Fi on only 17 percent of its planes, but it plans to expand those offerings.
8. Frontier Airlines
Frontier ranked below average in number of outlets, work desks, and Internet kiosks for its passengers. On the other hand, it does a great job of staying on top of social media--and not just because of the cute animals it features as its Facebook and Twitter profile pictures. Frontier regularly updates flight deal offers, it keeps passengers updated on services through its social outlets, and its offers links for customers to use in submitting complaints if they feel that they've had poor service.
Frontier Airlines has no app and no designated mobile site, but 35 percent of its planes provide Wi-Fi service.
At its gates in the 40 busiest airports, where we did our research, AirTran offered few amenities for tech-conscious travelers. It also has almost no social media presence to speak of. The airline usually offers very cheap fares, so passengers should weigh the trade-off. One significant plus: The airline offers onboard Wi-Fi on all of its planes.
JetBlue's spokespeople say that the airline has been conducting research into outfitting its passengers with more tech amenities; but as of fall 2011, our field research indicated that it had not made significant improvements to the gates it services. The airline was about average in this area, compared to other airlines.
JetBlue did earn a very high social media score. It doesn't do a great job of responding to user complaints via the social networks, but it does post regularly and allow user comments both positive and negative.
JetBlue currently lacks a separate app and onboard Wi-Fi, but the airline has partnered with ViaSat to provide Wi-Fi on all 160 aircraft in its fleet. The new Wi-Fi service will start appearing in 2012, according to the airline.