Nearly every large airport offers wi-fi, but travelers in Chicago, Atlanta, Frankfurt and Paris use it the most.
When Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in mid-April, stranding travelers in airports around the world, many turned to wi-fi to keep connected. For these “volcano refugees,” wi-fi was a convenient way to send e-mail, check weather and flight information or just pass the time. Some airports, such as Stockholm’s Arlanda, even waived their normal wi-fi fees so frustrated travelers could get online for free.
Outfitting airports with public Internet access isn’t a new idea, but the Eyjafjallajökull disruption points up the ubiquity of airport wi-fi, as well as its ability to soothe disgruntled passengers. Of the world’s 100 busiest airports, only one–Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz International–currently lacks wi-fi, according to JiWire, a wi-fi ad network that maintains a popular online wi-fi directory. “Wi-fi is a necessity for every airport, like baggage carts,” says Damien Kobel, director of the aviation market research firm DKMA.
Of course, wi-fi availability isn’t the same as wi-fi usage. To determine which airports see the most wi-fi activity, Forbes asked two leading wi-fi service providers–Boingo and iPass ( IPAS – news – people )–for their top traffic generators. Crunching that data left us with a list of the world’s most “wired” airports, led by Chicago and Atlanta in the U.S. and Frankfurt and Paris in Europe.
One caveat: Boingo and iPass cover most large airports, but the diversity of wi-fi providers around the world prevents them from capturing all airport wi-fi connections globally. Some airports, particularly those located in Asia and the Middle East, may be under-represented in their data.
With airport wi-fi so widely available, the question these days is not where to find it, but how it can be improved, says In-Stat analyst Frank Dickson. That could mean converting paid wi-fi to free. A recent study commissioned by Airports Council International (ACI) found that passengers were more satisfied with airports that offered free wi-fi than those that charged for the service. “[People] are used to free wi-fi in other public spaces and do not appreciate the need to pay while at the airport,” the report said.
Maintenance costs may prevent some airports from ever going free, however. A slim majority (55%) of the respondents in the ACI study said they charge for wi-fi, at an average price of $8 an hour. “We have no intention of changing our prices,” says John Rico, chief executive of Rico Enterprises, which maintains the wi-fi networks at O’Hare and Midway in Chicago. “People love the idea of free wi-fi, but there’s no guarantee it won’t fail on you,” adds Rico. Wi-fi at O’Hare and Midway costs $7 for one day or $10 for one month.
Pricing policies tend to vary by region and passenger type. Bustling East Asian “hub” airports such as Hong Kong, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur often provide free wi-fi as well as complimentary kiosks with built-in computers. The reason? These airports attract a lot of budget travelers. “Asian airports in particular see wi-fi as part of the complete passenger experience,” says consultant Kobel.
In contrast, countries with speedy cellular networks promote wi-fi less vigorously. Consider Australia. Though three of its airports rank among the world’s 100 busiest, none of them stands out in terms of wi-fi usage. “Since very fast 3G covers most of the country, Australia never built out an extensive wi-fi structure,” says iPass chief executive Evan Kaplan.
Within the U.S., airport wi-fi coverage can vary dramatically. Analyst Dickson gives his hometown airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor, high marks in terms of wi-fi pricing (free), coverage (broad) and signal strength (“fairly robust”). Newark Airport, which charges for wi-fi, rated much lower. Dickson says spotty coverage led him to an airport coffee shop that limited the number of users to 10 at a time. “It was like wi-fi lotto,” he jokes.