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.