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 click 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.
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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 numbers 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 -- available at Cleveland's, Raleigh-Durham's, and Seattle's 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.
Top 20 tech-friendly airports
How do the airports that you visit most frequently stack up? Consult the best airports chart for a detailed look at the tech amenities offered at the 40 largest airports in the country. And for highlights of the tech top 20, read on, starting below.
No. 1: Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW)
DFW doesn't have the most outlets, it doesn't have the fastest Wi-Fi, and it's not number one in work desks. But no other airport achieves such consistently high scores across so many categories. Dallas ranked near the top of all airports on six of the eight tech amenities that we measured.
As evidenced by the older Ethernet port installations at 16 gates throughout the airport, Dallas-Ft. Worth has been serving tech-savvy passengers for longer than most U.S. airports. These days, wired Ethernet ports are giving way to Wi-Fi access points and cellular amplifiers, to meet the needs of passengers who want to be connected and mobile. DFW's paid Wi-Fi service (through T-Mobile) produced respectable speeds in our tests, averaging 2.73Mbps for downloads airport-wide. The airport's cellular signal wasn't bad either: Verizon and T-Mobile clocked average download speeds of 4Mbps; AT&T averaged 3Mbps; and Sprint averaged 1Mbps.
DFW has benefited greatly from partners like Samsung, whose 64 charging stations, seven "mobile travel lounges," "power stations" (work stations with power outlets), and large flat-screen TVs are ubiquitous in the airport.
Augmented by the extra Samsung outlets, DFW boasts an average of 7.2 electrical outlets and 3.0 USB ports per gate. A fair number of Internet kiosks and work desks (with outlets and USB ports) are scattered among the gates, too.
No. 2: New York JFK International (JFK)
Only a few years ago, it was nearly impossible to find an outlet at JFK. But more recently the airport has added numerous useful amenities, such as desks and counters with outlets, to some -- but not all -- of its terminals. JFK Terminals 2 and 3 (thanks in part to Delta) and Terminal 5 (thanks in part to JetBlue) offer the largest number of work surfaces and electrical outlets, as well as decent free Wi-Fi. Other JFK terminals look old and dull, with tech amenities to match. Your best option in those terminals is to buy Boingo wireless service or use your own cellular signal.
JFK's new Terminal 5, which opened in 2008 at a cost of $800 million, is spectacular. T5 is JetBlue's new primary U.S. hub, but it's more than an airport terminal. It's a glossy-looking cultural center filled with cool shops, upscale restaurants that look like clubs, and over-the-top architectural design; concerts are sometimes held there.
JFK Terminals 2 and 3 host some upscale restaurants, a few of which will take your order from an iPad kiosk in the gate area and bring your food out to you. Delta and its restaurant management partner OTG installed these iPads -- more than 180 of them -- which anyone can use to check email, surf the Web, and order food. Next to each one is an electrical outlet equipped with USB ports for charging your devices as you sit there. Sadly, the iPad kiosks have become so popular that finding an open one during peak traveling hours can be difficult.
Plans are in the works to expand the number of iPad kiosks and tables at Delta's JFK operations significantly in the next few years. OTG spokesperson Sean Aziz says the company plans to put the next wave of public iPads on tethers, so that users can hold the device in their hands and interact with the content more easily.
No. 3: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
Atlanta is the busiest and the largest (170 gates) airport in the United States. Consequently, supplying passengers with power, workspaces, and Wi-Fi at all its gates is a massive undertaking. But Atlanta's airport authority seems to have risen to the challenge in recent years.
The airport ranked quite high among U.S. airports in the number of passenger-facing outlets it offers at the gates. Only San Francisco, Sacramento, and New York JFK offer more per gate. Some of the credit for ATL's tech-friendliness goes to Delta, for which Atlanta is a major hub. Delta flies out of five of the six terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson and has installed multiple freestanding charging stations (three two-plug outlets and two USB ports) in all of them. The electrical outlets in the walls and poles of the airport facility itself, combined with those on the Delta stations, comes to a total of 1377 outlets, an average 8.1 per gate.
The airport has also invested in providing workspaces for working travelers. Clusters of 4, 8, 10, and 12 "recharge stations" -- cubicle desks with power outlets -- occupy 19 locations throughout the airport. They're perfect for business travelers who need to get some work in -- and charge their devices -- before taking off on their flight. We counted a total of 240 powered workspaces throughout the terminals at ATL.
Hartsfield-Jackson is also trying its hand at the mobile rewards business. It recently announced a program to allow passengers to scan QR codes on advertisements around the airport with smartphones to receive food, beverage, and retail discounts from restaurants and shops in the airport.
No. 4: Detroit Metro Airport (DTW)
Detroit Metro Airport's newest facility, the three-year-old North Terminal, was built from the ground up with the needs of device-carrying passengers in mind. "We planned from the beginning to wire each gate area so that we would provide numerous power outlets throughout the facility for customers to use," says DTW spokesman Scott Wintner. Apparently, the effort succeeded: We counted an average 6.7 outlets per gate at Detroit Metro.
"We also worked with Southwest Airlines in particular to accommodate their request for even more power outlets in its three gate areas, including USB outlets not yet found elsewhere in the North Terminal," Wintner says. Southwest has installed many of its between-chair charging stations, which house an electrical outlet and two USB ports, in the North Terminal, home to the Southwest gates. In fact, 110-volt outlets and USB charging ports can be found at almost every chair.
Delta has been another major tech sponsor at Detroit Metro, working with the airport to install Delta-branded charging stations equipped with three electrical outlets and two USB ports apiece. Each Delta gate at DTW has up to six of these charging stations.
Wi-Fi service at DTW (provided by Boingo) is respectable; we clocked average download speeds of 2.5Mbps in our tests. Boingo also provides data ports at hourly, daily, or monthly rates throughout the airport -- offering a guaranteed connection if the wireless falters.
No. 5: Sacramento International Airport (SMF)
Sacramento International Airport's impressive new Terminal B is nirvana for mobile device users. Completed last year, it's packed with more than 140 triangle-shaped tables, each of which holds a standard two-plug outlet and two USB ports at the corners. We counted 647 outlets and 912 USB ports in Terminal B alone. SMF has offered free Wi-Fi at Terminals A and B since 2006.