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America's Most Tech-Savvy Airlines

In terms of tech amenities, some low-cost upstarts such as Virgin America and JetBlue are way ahead of most big carriers.

1. Virgin America: More power outlets--plus instant messaging

Coach seats on every flight feature 110-volt power outlets--meaning you won't need a plug adapter to power your laptop. Most airlines haven't added power ports to as many seats as Virgin America has, and the majority of airline power ports require an adapter to plug in. In addition, Virgin America offers USB connectors at seats throughout its cabins, allowing you to charge your iPods and other USB-compatible devices. The airline will roll out in-flight wireless Internet connectivity throughout 2008.

Virgin America's Red entertainment system graces the back of each seat on every flight.
Virgin America's in-flight entertainment system, called Red, features a 9-inch touch screen. Using the screen, you can access audio programming, games, pay-per-view movies, and satellite TV. And how's this for cool? You can use your screen to send instant messages to other passengers on the flight and to order food.

2. JetBlue: First U.S. carrier with in-flight e-mail and live TV

JetBlue was the first U.S. carrier to offer live satellite TV on seat-back screens throughout its cabins. The TV is free to watch, but the pay-per-view movies are $5 each and aren't offered on demand. Passengers can also listen to 100 channels of XM Satellite Radio for free. Another differentiator: JetBlue is one of the few U.S. carriers to offer free wireless Internet access at departure gates--specifically, at its JFK Airport and Long Beach, California, terminals. JetBlue doesn't offer in-seat power ports, however.

JetBlue passengers with Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys can send and receive messages when flying this Airbus A320.
In December 2007, JetBlue began testing a limited version of in-flight Internet service on a single Airbus A320, in December 2007. During the trial, passengers with laptops can send and receive e-mail via Yahoo Mail and instant messages via Yahoo Messenger, while users with Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys (the 8820 and Curve 8320) can send and receive messages via Wi-Fi. JetBlue plans to begin offering full broadband Internet access on its fleet sometime this year.

3. American Airlines: Tops among the big carriers for power ports, mobile tools

Though not as 'sexy' as low-cost upstarts like Virgin America and JetBlue, American Airlines is tops among the large U.S. carriers for its many geek-friendly services.

American's online booking tools are above average. When creating an itinerary, for example, you can get an at-a-glance view of aircraft type, total travel time, flight miles earned, and meals served.

In January this year, American introduced its mobile browser site. You can check in for your flight; view itineraries, flight status, and schedules; and receive updated weather and airport information. Soon you'll be able to book flights, change your reservations, view fare specials, and request upgrades or enroll in American's frequent flyer program from your mobile Web browser. Only a few other U.S. airlines--most notably Northwest--are currently offering such a breadth of mobile capabilities. 

American's under-the-seat power port.
Perhaps most important, aside from Virgin America, American is the only large U.S. carrier to offer power ports in all seat classes on most aircraft. Chances are good that you can keep your laptop powered via a DC power port on American's Airbus A300; Boeing 737, 767, and 777; and MD80 aircraft. Worth noting: Power ports are not available throughout economy cabins on all of those aircraft. Check SeatGuru for power port availability before booking. Also, you'll need a DC auto/air power adapter to plug in your laptop.

American recently began installing and testing broadband Internet access on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft this year. The goal is to continue tests of the Aircell air-to-ground broadband system on 15 of its 767-200 planes, primarily on transcontinental flights, with an eye toward offering the service for all its passengers beginning sometime this year. Aircell's system will give passengers Internet access, with or without a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection, on Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, PDAs, and portable gaming systems. Like most other in-flight broadband systems that U.S. carriers are testing, the Aircell system won't allow cell phone or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service.

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