Will Free Airport Wi-Fi Take Flight?

Been to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International lately? Of course you have -- we all have -- which is one of the reasons it just got ranked the busiest airport in the U.S. for the fourth year in a row.

These days, big airports are mini-cities (or as Southwest CEO Gary Kelly put it, somewhat grandiose "monuments" to their communities). In short, airports are more than just a place to hop a plane.

Atlanta is no exception: it features art exhibits (a collection of Zimbabwean sculpture); fine dining showcasing international and regional cuisine (I've been told to try "One Flew South"); and a ton of increasingly high-end stores (look for Brooks Brothers later this year). And of course, there's all that free Wi-Fi.

Oh, wait. They don't have free Wi-Fi. You have to pay for it. And that's got me more than a bit grumpy.

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Hartsfield-Jackson is not alone in making you pay for your Internet connection: of the top 20 busiest airports in the nation, I count just five with free Wi-Fi -- Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte and Orlando (two others, Philadelphia and Seattle-Tacoma, support limited free Wi-Fi). So, out of the top 20, most of us have to pay to go online. Inexplicable!

I suppose some of you are thinking, "oh, simmer down" -- after all, the airlines charge for this amenity on limited flights and shortly, on most of their fleets. Yes, they do -- but a lot of our flights are what, an hour, two hours? And how many times have you been delayed in the airport in the past few years -- for a lot longer?

Besides, the airlines are just now introducing Wi-Fi -- while many airports have had it for some time now. And still they charge.

I'm sure the airports like the money. Over at JFK, a courteous PR rep told us most of the money they make from Wi-Fi fees goes to "cost recovery" -- equipment installation and the like -- but the fees also provide the airport with what he called a minor revenue stream. However, head over to JFK's Terminal 5 and -- what do you know? -- JetBlue provides Wi-Fi for free.

Mr. President, Our BlackBerrying Leader -- Are You Listening?

But as I said, that's pretty rare. From O'Hare to LAX, from DFW to Logan, we pay and pay for Wi-Fi -- which generates a lot of frustration for the laptop/PDA crowd. These are folks already shelling out maybe $80 a month for Internet service -- who now have to hand over up to $8 an hour just to get some work done or find alternate transportation while waiting for the runways to get plowed, or that late plane to finally show up.

Plus, have you ever tried connecting to one of those "pay Wi-Fi" systems? If you have, no further explanation is necessary. An aside: sometimes I'm surprised I have so much hair left -- since trying to connect at airports and then removing the "virus" many Wi-Fi providers require to connect, generally results in me pulling out a fair amount.

So, here's my question: Mr. President, our BlackBerrrying leader -- are you listening?

I imagine you are. I hope Congress is -- and for sure, the airports. After all, they can't wait to get their hands on some of that stimulus money -- in fact, the airports are looking for a cool $3 billion for capital improvements. As John Clark, chairman of the Airports Council International-North America said, airports need that stimulus because they "have the responsibility to the traveling public to keep facilities safe, secure and efficient." Tell me what's more efficient -- more stimulating -- than free Wi-Fi.

Plus, when it's free -- more people use it. At Denver International, for example, their old "for pay" Wi-Fi setup generated only about 600 connections a day -- but once they switched to free Wi-Fi, the figure zoomed to between 4,000 and 5,000 daily connections. Talk about stimulating!

Just think what this could do for the economy: instead of frustrated laptoppers giving up and standing in that 100-person line at Starbucks (you know that line -- the one serviced by a single barista), people will be on their laptops networking -- or chatting -- or investing -- or shopping.

In other words, doing things that make the economy go 'round.

Free Wi-Fi: Not a Perk, an Expectation

Alright, some will be reading the Daily Puppy, but you see what I mean. And hey, there is a way for airports to continue generating revenue, even with free Wi-Fi -- it's called advertising.

They're looking into that at North Carolina's Charlotte Douglas International as a way to cover some of the costs of their free Wi-Fi, which they have no plans to drop. The reason? They say, for travelers these days, free Wi-Fi is not a perk -- it's an expectation. An expectation that's increasingly important to busy, harried passengers.

Like all those busy, harried passengers shuttling through Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson. Oh, and did you hear? Atlanta airport officials are "currently researching ways to provide free Wi-Fi access for visitors" -- to create a better customer service experience, as they say.

Did I say I was grumpy? I'm starting to feel a bit better now.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.