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Opinion: Airport Wi-Fi and mobile services are lacking

Airports lag in their adoption of mobile technology, according to a traveler survey.
Airports lag in their adoption of mobile technology, according to a traveler survey.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Survey finds traveler dissatisfaction with mobile services at airports
  • Many airports do not offer free Wi-Fi; mobile signals are sometimes spotty
  • Author: Airports should create mobile-friendly websites
  • Travelers surveyed also want push alerts for gate changes

Editor's note: Editor's note: Amy Gahran writes about mobile tech for CNN.com. She is a writer and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado, whose blog, Contentious.com, explores how people communicate in the online age.

(CNN) -- Mobile technology is critical at the airport.

Yet, a new survey shows that most travelers (58%) are not satisfied with airport Wi-Fi. And beyond that, airports are missing opportunities to offer vital mobile services that could vastly improve travelers' experiences while they're in transit.

This 2,700-person survey was conducted earlier this year by FlightView, which makes a popular app that provides flight and airport information. The survey shows mobile devices frequently accompany travelers: Four out of five airport travelers use a smartphone, one-third use tablets and one-fifth use e-readers.

Surprisingly, fewer than one in five travelers reported using a laptop computer at the airport. FlightView predicts that by next year tablets will outnumber laptops at the airport.

As a frequent traveler, I'm often frustrated by how little my smartphone and Macbook Air can help me at the airport. Sometimes it seems like the airports and airlines want to thwart me.

Some airports charge fees through third-party providers (like Boingo.com or AT&T) simply to get Wi-Fi access -- and entering my credit card number over an open Wi-Fi network makes me shudder.

Citing a recent New York Times story, FlightView reports: "Many airports, including Denver, Las Vegas and San Francisco, are actually choosing customer satisfaction over ancillary revenue opportunities -- by providing airport visitors with free Wi-Fi access."

Once you manage to get on the airport Wi-Fi, access is often spotty and slow. Many airports force travelers to sit through a video commercial or other ads before they will let you access the Internet. Worse, some airports insist on placing a "frame" around your Web browser window with airport-related ads, limiting valuable screen real estate. That's annoying on a laptop; it's intolerable on a small cell phone screen.

Speaking of cell phones, airports are huge facilities that, I've found, often have cell phone "dead zones" -- even for major carriers like Verizon. I'm surprised that wireless carriers don't seem to be making a concerted effort to ensure good data network coverage at airports, especially at airports with lousy, unreliable, or paid Wi-Fi access. Imagine the effectiveness of their ads displayed in those locations!

One of the main things travelers want information about is the airport itself. Unfortunately, FlightView estimates that only half of U.S. airports currently have mobile-friendly websites. When your plane's about to board and you're trying desperately to find which gate your flight was switched to (because the announcement over the public address system was, of course, unintelligible), that's not when you want to be pinching, zooming, and scrolling on your phone.

What do mobile users want at the airport? According to Flightview, the overwhelming majority (94%) want flight status and gate information pushed promptly to their phones. Also, nearly three-fourths want boarding alerts sent to their mobile device. Nearly 40% would like mobile coupons for restaurants and shops on the terminal and concourses, and about 30% would like information on easily accessible food and beverages.

More than one-third of travelers also want to be able to book ground transportation via mobile, and nearly as many would like to use their mobile devices to share flight information easily via social media, text and e-mail, the survey found.

Nearly two-thirds of travelers told FlightView that they would value mobile access to walking directions from to their departure gate, especially when changing planes on a connecting flight. Demand for this service is highest among leisure travelers (71%), who are often less familiar with the layout of the airport.

Personally, I'd also appreciate estimates on the time it will take to walk to my next gate. At Chicago O'Hare, especially, I've ended up jogging for the better part of a mile, carry-on bag in tow, on more than one occasion.

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of Amy Gahran.

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