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.