The War on Annoying Airport Announcements

The quest for quieter airport terminals continues.

Audio announcements broadcast in rooms with a length greater than five times the width have noticeable echoes. Add hard floors and lots of background noise, and the audio will be further distorted. (Photograph of Suvamabhumi Airport, Bangkok,Thailand, by Khaosaming, via wikimedia.)
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Singapore’s Changi Airport offers lots of passenger amenities: a garden featuring 100 different types of cacti; a butterfly habitat with 40 separate species; a luxurious rooftop pool. What it doesn’t offer are final call announcements and paging of late passengers, making it one of the latest facilities to adopt what’s known as a “silent airport” policy. Announcements are now made only for emergencies, lost or found children, and flight delays. The airport used to average one announcement every five minutes in each of its three terminals, an aural bombardment that led some passengers to tune out, Changi Airport Group spokesperson Ivan Tan told the Straits Times. (Other airports to adopt the policy include London City Airport, Helsinki, Barcelona, Chennai, and Cape Town.)

It’s hard to get passengers to listen to—and comprehend—announcements in an airport setting, a recent study finds. That’s the gist of a paper published last year by Wilson Ihrig (an acoustical consulting firm) on the intelligibility of airport public address systems.

Large arrival halls with high ceilings have terrible acoustic properties. And interference from background noise—people talking, HVAC systems, escalators, TVs, and traffic—further affects passengers’ ability to understand announcements. “Events at U.S. airports in August 2016 underscore the importance of controlling ambient noise,” notes the study. “In two separate events, at two different airports, unidentified loud noises inside the terminal led to speculation that guns were fired. In the first case, the noise was caused by cheering from people watching the Olympic Games. In the second case, an unidentified noise was mistakenly linked to gunfire. In both cases, the confusion caused concern and panic.”

In addition to the challenges of room size, shape, and materials not conducive to reflecting intelligible sound, there are also human factors to take into consideration. Experienced travelers were expected to be active listeners, thought the researchers, responding quickly to all auditory messages. But observation showed just the opposite: frequent fliers tended to don headphones as soon as they reached the terminal, putting down their phones or tablets only after entering the gate area, where they expected to hear information directly relevant to their own journey. Novice fliers, on the other hand, were distracted by shops and restaurants in the airport and simply didn’t pay attention to the messages. Announcements broadcast in ticketing areas were missed by both types of travelers, who were busy dealing with the task at hand, notes the study. “[W]hen passengers were surveyed at a busy airport check-in area, they were often found to be genuinely unaware that any PA messages had been played in the preceding 10 minutes.”

The “silent airport” trend hasn’t yet caught on in the United States. We decided to check with the nearby Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport, to see if the policy is making its way to the nation’s capital. “As of right now, no, we haven’t adopted this policy,” a spokesperson from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority told us. “We use our PA system to make regular announcements to inform our passengers about everything from ground transportation to impacts associated with [Project Journey] construction at Reagan National, so it’s likely not something we’ll be participating in.”

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