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.
Sacramento is the only airport we investigated that has wireless charging surfaces (36 of them) for charging devices that travelers place on them. "If that's not enough, there are fee-based Internet kiosks and rapid-charging stations and InMotion and Brookstone stores ready to sell batteries, chargers, noise-cancellation headphones, laptop adapters, and more to eager technophiles," says SMF spokesperson Laurie Slothower.
No. 6: Oakland International Airport (OAK)
On the plus side, Oakland International Airport offers ample outlets at the gate areas and a healthy number of USB outlets. On the negative side, you'll find a proper work desk only every five gates, on average. Southwest has helped matters considerably by installing numerous charging stations -- a small wooden table with a two-plug electrical outlet and two easy-to-access USB ports between pairs of large, comfortable chairs.
If you're lucky to find one of these between-chair stations, you can sit in relative comfort with your device charging beside you, though working on your laptop while it's parked on the wooden table can be a bit awkward. For travelers who can't find a comfy chair to sit in, Southwest has installed numerous "power stations" -- tall walk-up tables usually studded with five outlets each.
No. 7: New York LaGuardia (LGA)
Like the Big Apple's other big airport, JFK, LaGuardia is an older facility that has become decidedly more tech-friendly in some respects over the past few years. The number of available outlets per gate now exceeds 7.2, and the airport's Wi-Fi service averages a workable 2.5Mbps on average throughout the airport.
Perhaps the most promising tech development at LaGuardia is the work of Delta and its restaurant management partner OTG. They've installed 70 iPad kiosks in Terminal D. As at JFK, travelers can sit at a high table (with outlets) and use the embedded iPad to access restaurant menus, flight updates, weather conditions, and online entertainment while waiting for their flights. The iPads at LaGuardia have been so popular that Delta and OTG plan to install an additional 400 of the devices by early 2012, OTG's Aziz says.
No. 8: Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)
Like many other airports around the country, Salt Lake City International has been adding electrical outlets to its gates over the past few years -- and today the gates at SLC provide an average of 5.4 outlets and 3.0 USB ports each. We counted 23 workspaces (19 desks and 4 cubicles) scattered around the airport, most of which included a power outlet. We didn't spot any Internet kiosks or business centers, however.
The Wi-Fi service at SLC is free, and it's faster than the 40-airport average. In our tests, the Salt Lake City airport's average Wi-Fi speed was around 2Mbps for downloads airport-wide, and 2.2Mbps for uploads. As for the cellular service, Verizon LTE pumped out average download speeds of 4.3Mbps, while Sprint averaged 2.2Mbps, and AT&T and T-Mobile each averaged 1.3Mbps.
No. 9: Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
BWI bills itself as the "easy come, easy go" airport, since it offers a relatively stress-free commute for laptop and smartphone users who live in the District of Columbia, Maryland, or Virginia.
Baltimore-Washington Airport averages more than 7.3 outlets per gate; and many of the gates feature comfortable seats and work stations, with access to power outlets and USB ports. These come courtesy of Southwest, which operates in 26 gates in the A and B terminals, accounting for 70 percent of traffic through the airport.
But BWI's greatest strength is its Wi-Fi service. We measured an average download speed of 6.5Mbps and an average upload speed of 2.5Mbps in our tests throughout the airport's five concourses; those numbers make BWI's Wi-Fi service the fifth-fastest among major U.S. airports. The airport currently offers a fee-based service, but like many other airports, it is looking into the possibility of introducing a free service sometime next year.
Cellular service at Baltimore-Washington wasn't bad either. In our tests, the average download speeds for the four major carriers were 4Mbps for Verizon, 3.22Mbps for AT&T, 3Mbps for T-Mobile, and 1.76Mbps for Sprint.
No. 10: San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
Competing with Oakland International and San Jose International to serve perhaps the most tech-savvy market in the country, San Francisco International Airport must contend with travelers' high expectations regarding tech amenities. For the most part, it delivers. The airport averages 13.6 outlets per gate, by far the most in the United States for such a large airport.
SFO has some older terminal buildings, but the spanking new Terminal 2 -- home base for Virgin America -- may represent the future of air travel. T2 is simple, clean, and spacious, with a distinctly high-tech ambience: It looks and feels like Silicon Valley.
Virgin America played a major role in designing the terminal, right down to the signature mood lighting that Virgin America uses at its ticket counters and gates. The interior is filled with cool lounge areas and tastefully appointed gates that make you feel as if you're in someone's living room. Even more important, the place is loaded with electrical outlets and spacious desktops. We counted almost 400 outlets and 144 workspaces in T2 alone.
The other terminals at SFO have a fustier feel to them, but designers have retrofitted plenty of those terminals' gates with new outlets in the walls and on poles; and many gates now also have sets of two- or four-cubicle desks, complete with electrical outlets.
No. 11: Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport isn't big on electrical outlets (2.65 per gate, on average), and it provides less than one USB port and less than one work desk per gate, on average, but its free Wi-Fi service is terrific. We measured average download speeds of 11Mbps and uploads of 7.25Mbps in our Wi-Fi tests. Verizon cellular service was exceptional, too, averaging 11Mbps for downloads and 7.5Mbps for uploads.
No. 12: Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU)
Some of the seats in the gates at Raleigh-Durham International have power outlets, and some of the tables have USB and power outlets beneath the tabletops. But like Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood, RDU ranks high on our list because of its Wi-Fi. Though the AT&T service isn't free, it's fast; we measured average speeds of greater than 14 mpbs throughout the airport -- the fastest airport Wi-Fi service we saw in our tests.
No. 13: Nashville International Airport (BNA)
Nashville's airport provides 20 minutes of free Wi-Fi per user, after which you have to buy a day-pass from Boingo. Still, Boingo's service is solid at BNA, averaging 2.8Mbps for downloads throughout the airport, and you can pay as you go for $4.95 per hour. Delta and Southwest have tricked out their gate areas in the B and C concourses, respectively, with freestanding charging stations that include USB ports.
No. 14: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP)
Many of the gates at Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport have free charging stations, including Samsung "power poles," Clear Channel sit-down charging stations, and Delta charging stations. The airport also offers "power seating": Many of the tables in the food courts and in some of the restaurants have power outlets nearby, so travelers can recharge their devices as they eat. MSP also has a few business centers for users who need a desk and some quiet.
Delta has announced plans for an iPad installation in the G concourse at MSP similar to its installations at New York's JFK and LaGuardia airports. Passengers will be able to sit at an iPad kiosk or restaurant-style table and order food from 12 different restaurants in the terminal. Work on the new installation is slated to begin in 2012, and should take 18 months to complete.
Delta and restaurant management partner OTG also plan to introduce a "media bar" -- a virtual newsstand where passengers can rent an iPad and load it up with publications, movies, music, and apps to enjoy during their flight. Upon reaching their destination, travelers will be able to return their iPad by dropping it into a prepaid postage box.
No. 15: Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW)
Surprise! The tech-friendliest airport in Chicago isn't the giant O'Hare. It's the smaller Chicago Midway, which features groups of powered workspaces with power outlets at three gates. These workspaces are especially good for working travelers who want a flat surface for their laptop and who have a smartphone in need of charging before the flight, too.
No. 16: Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE)
Cleveland makes our Top 20 on the strength of its Wi-Fi service, which is both free and fast. In our tests the service delivered average download speeds of 8Mbps, and average upload speeds of 6.8Mbps -- more than enough speed to stream movies, and perhaps do a little video chatting with the folks back home.
Cleveland International's other stats weren't as impressive. The airport averages just 2.9 outlets per gate and 0.7 USB ports per gate. And pity the person who comes to CLE needing a desk to work at: They're in short supply.
No. 17: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
LAX is the nation's third busiest airport, a sprawling affair with eight domestic terminals and one international terminal. We counted an average of 5.3 outlets per gate, many of them on the 51 Samsung charging poles located at gates throughout the airport. LAX also sports a fair number of Neptune Networks internet kiosks, which charge users 25 cents per minute.
No. 18: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
At Sea-Tac we found just 2.7 electrical outlets (on average) per gate, and not many USB ports, either (0.4 per gate). You will find Smarte Carte rapid phone charging stations (at $3 for a charge) in all terminals, and the airport's Wi-Fi service is more than respectable, with averages of 5.7Mbps for downloads and 4.5Mbps for uploads in our tests.
No. 19: Kansas City International Airport (MCI)
Kansas City International is well-outfitted for tech travelers, especially at Southwest's gates. The airline has installed plenty of big, comfy chairs that have a little wooden table attached, plus power and USB ports. You'll also find a healthy number of Southwest's standing bars, equipped with up to ten two-plug outlets, which are perfect for a quick charge and an email check before your flight.
Overall, Kansas City International averages 4.2 outlets per gate and 4.9 USB ports per gate. The airport's Wi-Fi service averaged a workable 1.4Mbps for downloads, and its cellular service clocked in at an above-average 3.35Mbps for downloads.
No. 20: Portland International Airport (PDX)
Despite its painfully slow (but free) airport Wi-Fi, Portland International edges out Las Vegas International for the final spot in our Top 20, simply by showing up in all categories. PDX averages 5.6 outlets per gate, and it has charging stations, USB ports, and work desks in every terminal, though we'd like to see more of them. The airport also has business centers with desks and outlets in every terminal, and the local T-Mobile and Sprint cellular service proved to be surprisingly fast, averaging 4.2Mbps for uploads and 3Mbps for downloads, respectively.
The most tech-friendly airlines
Airport authorities aren't always the primary providers of tech niceties. That role often falls to the airlines themselves, which have noticed that electrical outlets, work desks, and zippy Wi-Fi can influence passengers' decisions to fly on Airline A or with Airline B. As a result, some airlines have become very active in making their gate areas a more welcoming place for laptop and smartphone users.
Delta leads the pack in this area. The airline has upgraded about 20 of the airports where it operates with Delta-branded charging stations. As our survey results indicate, the stations have made a huge difference in the number of available outlets and USB ports at the gates. And Delta's iPad installations at New York's JFK and LaGuardia airports, and (soon) at Minneapolis-St. Paul International are truly impressive.
Delta's tech focus doesn't stop at the gate. All of its large domestic aircraft now offer Gogo Wi-Fi on board. The carrier is looking for a way to outfit its 250 international aircraft with Wi-Fi, since Gogo's ground-based service can't reach beyond 100 miles offshore.
Aside from the usual array of features (flight updates, mobile boarding passes, seat maps, and so on), Delta's Fly Delta mobile app offers capabilities that most other airline apps don't -- such as the ability to track your checked bag by scanning your bag tag with your smartphone. User reviews in the app stores are generally positive, though the app does lose a few points for not letting users book new flights; you can use it only to change existing reservations.
Delta also has the strongest presence of any airline on both Twitter and Facebook. The company allows customers to book travel directly from Facebook, and it offers the @deltaassist hashtag on Twitter for people who run into support issues. Delta's "social media lab" is peopled by regular customer service reps who watch for Delta customers tweeting their problems or complaints, and then provide support in real time over Twitter or other channels if necessary.
Delta says that its social networking efforts pay off both financially and in customer loyalty. "We want to engage with our customers with our digital channels as much as possible," says Delta's vice president of e-commerce Bob Kupbens. "We feel it's a great way to improve customer service. It's a way for us to get people out of line and off the phone, which is good for the customer and good for Delta."
Megan Geuss and Leah Yamshon performed research for this story. PCWorld would like to thank the following companies and organizations for their support our study: Samsung, Novatel, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Virgin America, and the airport authorities around the country that allowed us access behind security to conduct our research. A special thanks goes to our research team, the fearless men and women who canvassed the nation's airports over the past four months to gather the data behind this story.
This story, "20 best U.S. airports for tech travelers" was originally published by PCWorld.