The most and least wired airlines and airports

Air travelers hate being without Net access for hours. Some airlines and airports are finally responding.

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.

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