From mile-high Wi-Fi to mobile boarding passes, which airline has the best tech?

airline tech savvy virgin america virginamericaplane1hires
Update on October 28, 2014: We incorrectly stated in our original article that Virgin America did not offer live television and mobile boarding passes – it does (thanks VA). We have updated the article below to reflect this. Having already taken the number-one spot, this update only reinforces our awarding the airline as our most techie airline.

Although Americans now fly more than ever before, the amenities passengers once expected from domestic airlines in the United States are slowly disappearing or only available to premium fliers. But while the pretzels and leg room may be shrinking, one amenity has only been growing: tech in the air.

From in-flight Wi-Fi and streaming entertainment on demand, to social networking-based customer service and mobile apps, tech abounds. And it’s not just about fliers wanting to stay connected. Airlines can utilize technology to not only help cut costs but generate revenue as well.

From low-cost airlines like Southwest to legacy carriers like Delta, technology is being implemented not just in their planes but also in your pocket before you even depart for the airport. Some airlines are more aggressive than others in embracing tech, so which should the tech-savvy traveller favor next time he goes to book?

We took a closer look at who’s leading the pack — and who’s flying you back into the dark ages.

What we looked at

In our review, we looked at the major domestic airlines. We looked for features including mobile apps, mobile boarding passes, online check-in, Wi-Fi, video on demand, personal device (streaming) entertainment, live television, and power, as well the use of social media and any extras like airport upgrades. We based our findings on information publicized on airlines’ websites, recent press announcements, user forums, app reviews, and the ever indispensible website, Seatguru.com.

United Airlines seatback On-Demand Entertainment

Note that we will update this feature as airlines continue to upgrade their tech offerings. As technology evolves quickly, today’s most techie airlines could become tomorrow’s laggards.

Trends

During our research, we noticed select trends happening across the board. All airlines offer online check-in. Social media has become a powerful tool for airlines not just for publicizing real-time news like flight delays but also to assist customers with their travel plans. They are staffing up their social media teams as a result. Wi-Fi is also being rolled out to all planes. Power outlets, once available only in premium cabins, can now be found in the economy cabin; some planes even offer USB ports for recharging portable devices. In-flight Wi-Fi is also being used to stream entertainment to passengers’ smartphones, tablets, and computers. Airlines such as Jetblue, Southwest, and Virgin America, which operate a single type of aircraft, are able to roll out tech upgrades faster than legacy carriers that have fleets of varied aircrafts.

Most techie airline

Based on our criteria, Virgin America takes home the prize. Every VA plane offers Wi-Fi, AC and USB power, and video-on-demand seat-back monitors with live television. It also offers seat-to-seat chat, a food-ordering system (no more annoying carts blocking the aisle), a map view using Google Maps, and a recently launched in-flight social network. It’s also on most of the popular social networks, and the company has the cheekiest marketing (it recently launched a five-hour YouTube video demonstrating how mundane it is to fly other airlines).

Virgin-America-VX-MCS-HIRES

Virgin America also has an attractive website that scales accordingly to whichever device you’re using, and offers mobile boarding passes. VA ultimately wins because it is the only airline to offer all these tech amenities consistently throughout its fleet.

The runner-up is Jetblue, which is currently rolling out faster satellite-based Wi-Fi across its fleet and upgrading the cabins. It could take the crown from Virgin next year. Southwest also deserves a mention, as it offers fast satellite-based Wi-Fi in all of its planes and streaming entertainment to personal devices; it recently announced a collaboration with Beats Audio to offer free music streaming to fliers. Unfortunately, its planes lack power outlets, which are crucial to power-hungry tablets and smartphones.

Needs improvement

No surprises, it’s the no-frills carriers that are at the bottom. Spirit flunks out in all categories, but it’s unapologetic about it. Its business model as a no-frills airline is based on offering low prices, and offering very little in return (the company even charges for printing a boarding pass at the airport). We aren’t sure if Spirit will even roll out amenities like Wi-Fi. Its only social presence is on Twitter, but it’s not used for customer engagement.

Following closely are Sun Country and Allegiant, two low-cost leisure airlines. Allegiant, at least, offers an app, mobile check-in, and boarding passes. Heading toward Spirit’s business model is Frontier, which also offers very few tech amenities, but does offer an app and DirecTV.

Don’t count out the legacy carriers

Legacy carriers American, Delta, and United are often viewed as the dinosaurs of the industry. They are saddled with huge operating costs and fleets that have different types of aircrafts, which means they are slower to implement changes.

But changes are happening. All three (Delta especially) are aggressively upgrading their planes with Wi-Fi, advanced video-on-demand systems, streaming content, and power outlets, as well as improved Web and app experiences. United, for example, recently announced Wi-Fi and personal device entertainment will be installed in its fleet of regional jets. Implementation is a bit haphazard (you never really know which plane actually has Wi-Fi, for example), and rollout will last into next year (and beyond), but the legacy carriers definitely deserve some praise, after years of declining service.

Have you flown recently and been wowed with the service? Does our analysis square with your experience? Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think!

Emerging Tech

With CabinSense, cars will soon know who’s riding in them and respond accordingly

What if your car could know who's riding in it and customize the entertainment and safety options accordingly? That’s what's promised by the new CabinSense in-car Occupancy Monitoring System.
Gaming

Pre-order The Division 2 for PC to get a free Ubisoft game

Ubisoft is offering a free game for those who pre-order the PC digital version of The Division 2. You'll get to choose from Watch Dogs 2, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands, and Far Cry Primal.
Emerging Tech

Atomo’s ‘molecular coffee’ is brewed without needing to harvest coffee beans

Coffee beans, huh? Who needs ‘em? Apparently not the folks behind Seattle-based startup Atomo, who claim to have created a cup of "molecular coffee" that requires no beans to be harvested.
Music

Spotify could terminate accounts of listeners using ad blockers

Bad news for those who block annoying ads on Spotify -- the company has updated its Terms of Service to explicitly ban ad blockers. Consequences for users found circumventing the rules include suspending or terminating your account.
Mobile

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-powered website creates freakishly lifelike faces of people who don’t exist

No, this isn't a picture of a missing person. It's a face generated by a new artificial intelligence on the website ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Here's how the impressive A.I. works.
Emerging Tech

Global Good wants to rid the world of deadly diseases with lasers and A.I.

Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates, aims to eradicate diseases that kill children in developing nations. It tackles difficult problems with high-tech prototypes.
Emerging Tech

China’s mind-controlled cyborg rats are proof we live in a cyberpunk dystopia

Neuroscience researchers from Zhejiang University, China, have created a method that allows humans to control the movements of rats using a technology called a brain-brain interface.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s MAVEN orbiter has a new job as a communication relay for Mars 2020

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter has been collecting atmospheric readings but now is taking on a new job as a data relay satellite for the Mars 2020 mission that launches next year.
Emerging Tech

Underground volcanoes could explain possible liquid water on Mars

Last year scientists discovered there could be liquid water on Mars. Now a research team argues that for there to be liquid water, there must be an underground source of heat -- and they believe underground volcanoes could be responsible.
Emerging Tech

The 10 most expensive drones that you (a civilian) can buy

OK, these drones may be a bit beyond your budget: Check out the most expensive drones in the world, from industrial giants to highest-end filming tools.
Emerging Tech

Of all the vape pens in the world, these 5 are the best

Vaping concentrates has become significantly more popular, especially among those that use cannabis for medicinal purposes. But don’t use just any vape pen: we found these five devices to be our favorites in 2018.
Computing

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.
Emerging Tech

A river of stars one billion years old flows across the southern sky

Astronomers have identified a river of stars flowing across our galaxy and covering most of the southern sky. The estimated 4000 stars that comprise the stream were born together and have been moving together for the last one billion years.