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.
[ Also on InfoWorld: 10 nightmares traveling with tech -- and how to prevent them. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. | Read Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog for what the key business trends mean to you. ]
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.