Pop Quiz: How many U.S. airlines currently offer broadband Internet access to all passengers?
If you answered “none,” give yourself a pat on the back because you’re absolutely right. But that is about to change. Right now, JetBlue –one of the most wired airlines in the U.S.–has one flight that offers limited e-mail service, but not full Web surfing.
Continental, Southwest, Virgin America, and American Airlines are among the carriers testing or launching full e-mail and Web access services in the coming months. If all goes as planned, by early to mid-2009, travelers should have a variety of choices for in-flight Internet access.
When it comes to offering tech amenities, only a few airlines are leading the way, notes Henry H. Harteveldt, vice president and principal airline/travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. That’s understandable, given the economic turbulence the airline industry has experienced over the past few years.
Meanwhile, worldwide demand for portable PCs keeps gaining altitude. DisplaySearch expects 228.8 million notebooks will be sold worldwide this year–nearly ten times as many as in 2001. It’s a safe bet that the growing ranks of laptop users will translate into growing demand for in-flight Internet access. A recent Forrester Research survey shows 57 percent of all U.S. leisure passengers are interested in going online during a flight.
Here is PC World’s roundup of the best U.S. and international airlines for business travelers and tech fans. Our goal: To help make your next airline trip as smooth, productive–and entertaining–as possible. To determine the top carriers for these purposes, we took into account the quality of the airlines’ Web sites; availability of mobile browser and SMS tools; departure-gate amenities; in-flight connectivity and entertainment options; and the availability of power ports in all cabins. We also took a look at the most ‘wired’ U.S. airports, judging where you’re most likely to find Wi-Fi connectivity, power recharging stations, and more.
You also need to know which airlines to avoid, at least for now. Our list of the least tech-savvy airlines tells you which carriers offer relatively little in the way of advanced in-flight entertainment, power ports, and other smart options.
America’s Most Tech-Savvy Airlines
In terms of tech amenities, some low-cost upstarts such as Virgin America and JetBlue are way ahead of most big carriers.
1. Virgin America: More power outlets–plus instant messaging
Coach seats on every flight feature 110-volt power outlets–meaning you won’t need a plug adapter to power your laptop. Most airlines haven’t added power ports to as many seats as Virgin America has, and the majority of airline power ports require an adapter to plug in. In addition, Virgin America offers USB connectors at seats throughout its cabins, allowing you to charge your iPods and other USB-compatible devices. The airline will roll out in-flight wireless Internet connectivity throughout 2008. Virgin America’s in-flight entertainment system, called Red, features a 9-inch touch screen. Using the screen, you can access audio programming, games, pay-per-view movies, and satellite TV. And how’s this for cool? You can use your screen to send instant messages to other passengers on the flight and to order food.
2. JetBlue: First U.S. carrier with in-flight e-mail and live TV
JetBlue was the first U.S. carrier to offer live satellite TV on seat-back screens throughout its cabins. The TV is free to watch, but the pay-per-view movies are $5 each and aren’t offered on demand. Passengers can also listen to 100 channels of XM Satellite Radio for free. Another differentiator: JetBlue is one of the few U.S. carriers to offer free wireless Internet access at departure gates–specifically, at its JFK Airport and Long Beach, California, terminals. JetBlue doesn’t offer in-seat power ports, however.
In December 2007, JetBlue began testing a limited version of in-flight Internet service on a single Airbus A320, in December 2007. During the trial, passengers with laptops can send and receive e-mail via Yahoo Mail and instant messages via Yahoo Messenger, while users with Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerrys (the 8820 and Curve 8320) can send and receive messages via Wi-Fi. JetBlue plans to begin offering full broadband Internet access on its fleet sometime this year.
3. American Airlines: Tops among the big carriers for power ports, mobile tools
Though not as ‘sexy’ as low-cost upstarts like Virgin America and JetBlue, American Airlines is tops among the large U.S. carriers for its many geek-friendly services.
American’s online booking tools are above average. When creating an itinerary, for example, you can get an at-a-glance view of aircraft type, total travel time, flight miles earned, and meals served.
In January this year, American introduced its mobile browser site. You can check in for your flight; view itineraries, flight status, and schedules; and receive updated weather and airport information. Soon you’ll be able to book flights, change your reservations, view fare specials, and request upgrades or enroll in American’s frequent flyer program from your mobile Web browser. Only a few other U.S. airlines–most notably Northwest–are currently offering such a breadth of mobile capabilities.
Perhaps most important, aside from Virgin America, American is the only large U.S. carrier to offer power ports in all seat classes on most aircraft. Chances are good that you can keep your laptop powered via a DC power port on American’s Airbus A300; Boeing 737, 767, and 777; and MD80 aircraft. Worth noting: Power ports are not available throughout economy cabins on all of those aircraft. Check SeatGuru for power port availability before booking. Also, you’ll need a DC auto/air power adapter to plug in your laptop. American recently began installing and testing broadband Internet access on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft this year. The goal is to continue tests of the Aircell air-to-ground broadband system on 15 of its 767-200 planes, primarily on transcontinental flights, with an eye toward offering the service for all its passengers beginning sometime this year. Aircell’s system will give passengers Internet access, with or without a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection, on Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, PDAs, and portable gaming systems. Like most other in-flight broadband systems that U.S. carriers are testing, the Aircell system won’t allow cell phone or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service.
Foreign Favorites for High-Tech Flyers
International carriers–particularly on long-haul routes such as New York to London–are offering business travelers and tech fans even more exciting amenities.
1. Singapore Airlines: A PC at your seat
Singapore Airlines’ geek-friendly factor is hard to beat. Consider this: Even in coach, the seat-back screens also serve as Linux-based PCs, featuring Sun Microsystems’s StarOffice office productivity software. Each seat-back system includes a USB port, so you can connect your thumb drive or portable hard drive and upload your documents. You can also use the port to connect a USB keyboard or mouse. Forget to bring a keyboard? The airline will sell you one. Singapore’s screens are among the largest and highest resolution of any airline entertainment system. Coach passengers have a 10.6-inch LCD, while business-class travelers get a 15.4-inch screen. For first-class passengers, the sky’s the limit: a 23-inch screen. The airline’s KrisWorld entertainment system will keep you busy, too, with 100 movies, 150 television shows, 700 music CDs, 22 radio stations, and 65 games. You can also access Berlitz foreign language lessons, Rough Guides travel content, and news updates.
Singapore Airlines offers 110-volt, in-seat power in all classes on its Airbus 340-500 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. Aviation buffs take note: Singapore Airlines was the first to fly the gargantuan Airbus A380 aircraft. The airline says it’s currently considering options for providing in-flight Internet access.
2. Emirates Airlines: Text messaging and e-mail at $1 a pop
Passengers on Emirates Airlines can send and receive SMS and e-mail using seatback touch screens for $1 per message. You can use your Wi-Fi-enabled laptop on Emirates’ Airbus A340-500 aircraft to get e-mail. Real-time views of the sky and ground captured by on-board cameras are part of the in-flight entertainment system.
3. Air Canada: Your cell phone is your boarding pass
Air Canada offers many mobile browser tools, such as flight check-in and the ability to view the airline’s full timetable. It’s also one of the few airlines to let you use your cell phone as a boarding pass. Many of its seat-back screens offer free movies, TV programs, and music on demand–even in coach–plus USB and power ports.
4. Lufthansa: An in-flight Internet pioneer
Lufthansa was the first airline to offer Boeing’s now-defunct Connexion by Boeing in-flight Wi-Fi service. The airline says it’s currently testing another on-board Wi-Fi service. In the meantime, travelers can use their cell phones to check in for Lufthansa flights, check frequent flyer mileage balances, get information about transportation options to and from airports, and book future travel. First-class and business-class passengers have power ports to keep their laptops humming.
The Best U.S. Airports for Techies
Which U.S. airports are best for business travelers and tech fans? To find out, we looked at airport amenities such as pervasive Wi-Fi coverage and the availability of power ports, recharging stations, Internet kiosks, and more.
1. Denver International Airport is one of the largest U.S. airports offering free Wi-Fi in most areas. To offset the costs, you’ll see an ad–such as a 30-second video–when you log on. A caveat: The airport recently grabbed headlines for blocking some Web sites airport officials deemed racy. But as well, Denver’s airport features business center kiosks that include computer terminals equipped with office productivity applications, laser printers, and power ports for recharging.
2. McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas): Like Denver, Las Vegas’s airport provides free, ad-supported Wi-Fi throughout its terminals. The airport is adding power ports to seating areas and has converted phone booths into gadget-recharging zones.
3. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has at least five Wi-Fi network services throughout the airport, though none are free. Delta, which operates a huge hub here, offers recharging/workstation centers at some departure gates. The airport also has Regus Express/Laptop Lane business centers at three terminals.
4. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Orlando International Airport offer free Wi-Fi near gates and retail areas. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport recently remodeled its busy Terminal 4, creating several new areas where computer users can place their laptops on a shelf and plug into an outlet. The Orlando airport also offers public Internet kiosks.
5. Philadelphia International Airport provides Wi-Fi service throughout its terminals that’s free on weekends but requires a fee Mondays through Fridays. The airport also offers over 100 workstations throughout boarding gate areas with power outlets, as well as a Regus Express/Laptop Lane business center.
A few quick tips: Can’t find a Wi-Fi network at the airport? Sit outside an airline membership lounge. Most offer Wi-Fi for their customers, usually for a fee. Also, be sure to pack a compact power strip in your laptop bag in case you need to share a wall socket at a departure gate. And if you’re expecting a long layover, find out if a nearby airport hotel offers Wi-Fi in its lobby or restaurant, or in its guest rooms.
The Least Tech-Savvy Airlines
Not all airlines will send business travelers and tech fans soaring. Some, both big and small, don’t offer even the most basic services–such as in-flight video entertainment on cross-country flights. Here are five airlines you might want to steer clear of, for various reasons.
United Airlines, despite its massive size, offers little to get excited about. For example, only one of its aircraft–a Boeing 757–currently offers power ports in coach, while low-cost carriers such as Virgin America, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines seem to be working much harder at adding broadband Internet access for passengers. United’s Economy Plus–coach seats with extra legroom–give laptop users more space to work, however.
AirTran offers no video entertainment and no power ports, but you can listen to XM satellite radio at every seat on every flight. Thanks, but we’d rather they focused on business tech.
Qantasand Air France do offer some advanced techy services and amenities for travelers. Both are among the airlines performing limited tests of in-flight cell phone use. Though some passengers will see this as a perk, a recent Forrester Research survey showed that only about 16 percent of U.S. travelers said they would like to have the ability to use cell phones in-flight.