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Walking past laptop-toting digital nomads who huddle around the outlets lining the concourse, you arrive at your gate with 30 minutes to spare. You have a 6-hour flight in front of you, and a laptop and a smartphone that need a full charge to keep you working and listening to music throughout the flight. You stalk the gate area. The two available outlets on the payphone are taken. No outlets on the walls. The remaining minutes before departure tick down. A baby is crying. (Please, please, please, you think, don't seat me next to the baby...). "Final call for boarding." Your laptop has an hour of life left, and so does your phone. When both are dead, your noise-canceling headphones will be useless. You board and approach your seat. You're in 16B. The baby, in 16C, is already crying...
Another day in the friendly skies. It's happened before, and it will happen again. But it doesn't have to be that way. Airports across the country are installing more outlets and improving their Wi-Fi signals--but some are moving much faster than others. And fortunately, these days you have some measure of control: On many trips you have a choice of airports, terminals, and airlines. If you only knew what tech amenities were waiting for you at the airport, you might think twice before choosing an airline that flies out of gates like the one described above.
PCWorld sent researchers all over the country to canvass the gates of the 40 busiest airports in the United States and to identify the tech winners and losers. In all our airport auditors visited 3300 gates from coast to coast; they counted more than 17,000 electrical outlets, 5000 USB ports, and 1350 charging stations; and they performed hundreds of tests of airport Wi-Fi and cellular broadband service. For further details see "In Search of the Tech-Savvy Airport."
The charts on the following pages illustrate how each airport performed in these areas, with rankings of the top airports for overall tech amenities, the best terminals, and the best airports for Wi-Fi and cellular service. We also rated the major domestic airlines on their efforts to accommodate mobile, connected travelers--at the gates, in the planes, and online.
The Big Picture
Stepping back for a macro-level view of the data yields some interesting general findings about airports and airlines. For instance, the number of electrical outlets available in the nation's busiest airports is woefully inadequate. The average number of outlets (typically two AC plugs under a plate on the wall) for the U.S. airports we visited is about 5.5 per gate. But given that the number of wireless contracts for smartphones, laptops, tablets, and modems (almost 323 million, according to the wireless trade organization CTIA) now exceeds the U.S. population, most of the people waiting at any airport gate are likely to be carrying at least one such device. Take into account that mobile devices have notoriously short battery lives, and the traveler's dilemma comes into sharp focus. No wonder you see people walking forlornly through the gate areas looking for an outlet--any outlet--to plug in to.
Wi-Fi service on airplanes is similarly scarce. Only about a third of the planes in the fleets of the ten U.S. carriers have Wi-Fi onboard, meaning that many passengers must work offline during flight and then sync with other users, apps, and machines after the flight lands. But time and tech march on. Offering Wi-Fi on a flight no longer strikes airlines as a novel and exotic perk, but rather as something in line with the expectations of a growing percentage of the flying public. That's why airlines such as United and JetBlue have recently announced plans to outfit their fleets with Wi-Fi. We also noted a trend toward satellite-based (as opposed to ground-based) Wi-Fi that will work internationally, not just on domestic flights.
Airport Wi-Fi is a shifting landscape, too. Large operators like Boingo offer paid Wi-Fi in most U.S. airports, but airports are also moving to offer free Wi-Fi throughout the facility. Even so, fast, free Wi-Fi--such as that available at the Cleveland, Raleigh-Durham, and Seattle airports, among others--remains the exception and not the rule. Providing Wi-Fi service is expensive, and someone has to pay for it. Some airports rely on ad-based models, which require users to view an advertisement or take a poll before connecting for free. Others--mostly smaller airports--build the cost of Wi-Fi into their operating budgets just the way Starbucks does. But this approach is generally too costly for larger airports to pull off.
Other technology improvements, however, have become ubiquitous. Mobile check-in is one such advance. According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, of the 40 airports we visited, only one--Houston's Hobby (the older and smaller of the city's two international airports)--doesn't yet have the necessary phone scanners at security and at the gates to support it. Currently the airlines pick up the tab for these special scanners, but the TSA is said to be working out plans to buy the technology for all security checkpoints.
To come up with our rankings, we measured the tech amenities at the 40 busiest airports (as measured by number of boardings during 2010) in the United States, and then rated each one against its peers on the average number of electrical outlets, USB ports, charging stations, internet kiosks, and work desks that it offers per gate. We also performed a series of speed tests to measure each airport's Wi-Fi and major cellular services in numerous locations around the facility. We assigned a ranking to each airport based on overall speeds, with bonus points awarded to airports that don't charge for Wi-Fi. The airports that scored highest in our rankings offered a compelling mix of all of these services.