Jul. 21--Before the main terminal at Orlando International Airport opened in 1981, one of the big technology issues was deciding how many pay phones to install. Now, Florida's busiest passenger airport has to meet the demands of travelers who bring laptops, cell phones, hand-held video games and other gadgets that they expect to plug in and use with ease while waiting for a flight or their baggage.
     "Our cameras got filled with pictures, so we're using the computer to delete some and upload others to Facebook," Nikie McCabe, 16, said last week as she used her silver laptop and the airport's free wireless Internet while waiting for a flight home to New Jersey.
     "It would be pretty boring if they didn't have free Wi-Fi, because we got here at 11 a.m. and our flight is at 3 p.m.," added McCabe's cousin, Sam Lord, 17, as she rested her pink laptop on her lap.
     Free Wi-Fi aside, airport officials say the giant facility has been a leader in trying new technologies because it has more room and is more willing to take risks than airports in bigger cities such as Washington, D.C., or New York. And having millions of tourists as an instant focus group doesn't hurt, either.
     Jason Slibeck, chief technology officer for the Clear registered-traveler program, compares the Orlando airport to an early adopting consumer who goes out and buys the iPhone the first day it goes on sale.
     "Orlando was a very early adopter, and I think the reason is because Clear is a customer-service-driven program, and Orlando prides . . . [itself] on having that as a focus," said Slibeck, who visited the airport last week to help mark the three-year anniversary of Clear's launch in Orlando.
     In 2005, Orlando became the first airport in the country to offer the program, which lets preregistered passengers speed through security using biometric scanners. Clear is now available at 18 U.S. airports.
     Here's a look at some of the recent technology upgrades the airport has made, as well as some planned for the future.
     Power stations
     Cell-phone maker Samsung has installed about 20 charging stations across the airport. The stations have a small, circular counter so customers can rest their cell phones and other devices on them while charging. Southwest Airlines has also installed additional outlets near terminal gates, which allows passengers to charge their laptops without missing boarding calls for their flights.
     Micro-cell antennas
     Cell-phone reception in the airport has improved over the years, thanks to four 40-foot-tall cell-phone antennas that sit just outside the airport terminal. But with so many people inside the terminal sending and receiving e-mail, viewing video and doing other data-intensive activity using phones, the airport needs more bandwidth to handle the demand. So during the next year, the airport will install more than 100 micro-cell antennas inside the facility, which should improve both reception and data-transfer rates for travelers.
     Check-in kiosks
     By now, most customers are used to the self-serve check-in kiosks that some airlines have installed for dispensing boarding passes. But for the most part, you still have to walk to your airline's ticket counter to use one, and you have to wait in line for a machine. To make it easier and quicker for travelers to get boarding passes, the airport has started installing self-serve kiosks in strategic locations that allow customers to check in for flights on multiple airlines.
     The first kiosks were installed last week at the bottom of the elevators customers take to get from Terminal Top Parking to the ticket level. For now, each kiosk offers check-in for only two airlines, but John Newsome, the airport's director of information technology, said that by the end of August each kiosk will offer at least four airlines.
     LCD flight-information boards
     The airport recently finished replacing its train-station-style "big boards" for flight times and other information with large banks of flat-screen TVs. The move was more than an aesthetic one. The old boards displayed all of the airline names in the same font and size, making it hard for customers to quickly find information for their particular flight. Now, the TV monitor displays each airline's logo, so travelers can easily distinguish between them. Flight information is also more accurate, as it's now gleaned automatically from radar equipment instead of being provided through the airlines themselves.
     Free Wi-Fi
     John Newsome, who is chairman of the information-technology committee for Airports Council International in North America, said there's a debate in his profession about offering wireless Internet to travelers, which he dubbed "Free-Fi vs. Fee-Fi." In Orlando, Free-Fi has always been the choice. Part of the reason is that, unlike other airports, Orlando built a wireless-Internet backbone for its operations, so allowing customers to use it doesn't incur a lot of costs or hassles.
     "It's so pervasive now in so many locations, why should you be able to go to a coffeehouse or restaurant and have [free] Wi-Fi service and not have it in an airport?" Newsome said. "People are very transient in airports, so the idea of paying $10 a day when it turns out that you are only in that airport for two hours doesn't sound like a very good business deal for the traveler."Newsome added that free wireless is starting to become the norm at more airports.
     Etan Horowitz can be reached at ehorowitz@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5447.


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