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!

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