Over exposure to noise can have many negative effects on people, one of which is hearing loss. “According to the U.S. Public Health Service” noise exposure is the cause of hearing loss in “10 million of the estimated 21 million Americans” who have hearing impairments (Suter 14).
Noise is “a nonspecific biological stressor, eliciting a response that prepares the body for action.” Noise does a lot more than just annoy a passenger who wants some peace and quiet before their flight; noise can “influence perceptual, motor, and cognitive behavior, and also trigger glandular, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal changes by means of the autonomic nervous system” (Suter 24-25). Noise can increase “susceptibility to disease and infection” (Noise 3). It can be especially dangerous to those that already are “ill in mind or body” because they are “more susceptible... [to] heart problems and other diseases,” while it could only cause annoyance and irritability in other people (Noise 3). To avoid negatively affecting people’s health, it is important that in the planning of large buildings that are going to accommodate large crowds, like airports, the designers take into consideration what can be done to diminish unwanted sound. There are many factors for designers to account for that contribute to the noisy atmosphere in airports, such as the size of the building, materials used on the interior, flight announcements, crowds of people, and the aircraft engines.
Austin Bergstrom Airport (ABIA), an airport with only 25 gates, accommodated nearly 8.9 million travelers in 2007 (“Austin-Bergstrom”). A smaller airport, Des Moines International Airport (DSM), “enplaned 992,000 passengers” in 2007 (Erickson). A larger airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), had nearly 48 million passengers travel through its terminals (“Facts”). With hundreds of people passing through the halls of an airport at one time, it is likely to get loud. People talking to each other or on their cell phones adds the element of conversation into the mix of noise.
Many airports use beeping carts to help transport elderly and disabled passengers to where they need to go. According to business class traveler Ken Walker, the carts are a good idea for airports like Minneapolis where the gate furthest away from the ticketing counters is over [half of a] mile away” (Walker). However, Walker explains that the cart drivers depend on tips, so they yell ‘excuse me’ while rushing “through the airport in pursuit of a fare,” without consideration of people’s “bags, toes or hips” (Walker). The beeping of the carts combined with the drivers’ yelling adds a lot to the discordant noise in the air. Austin Bergstrom is particularly proud of not having these electric carts . ABIA instead has personal helpers that come to assist passengers that need it and have previously submitted a request. The absence of these carts distinguishes ABIA as being quieter than those airports that have the beeping carts driving through their terminals (Coldwell).
Music played in airports is another contributing dynamic. Unique to the Austin airport, a new CD is made each week featuring only local artists. The CD is only played in certain areas. It is not played in the loading lounges in order to give passengers a break from that particular stimuli before they board their plane (Coldwell).
The constant announcements that are required to be played over the loudspeakers are another factor of noise in the airport. There are announcements warning travelers about airport safety measures, e.g. to not leave belongings unattended or if you see any belongings unattended to report it. The Federation Aviation Administration requires these announcements to ensure the safety of all those in the airport. Also, each gate has its own announcements about the loading process to the planes. These announcements are imperative to ensure that travelers get on the right plane at the right time in an orderly fashion.
To help eliminate confusion and more unwanted sound, each gate in an airport makes announcements that are localized to their respective loading area. At the JFK airport, the “the latest technology in loudspeaker design, the ‘phase array’ loudspeaker” is used to minimize the “requirements for acoustic treatment within the station architecture by using highly directional [optimized] loudspeakers” (“Airports”). Also, ABIA employees are encouraged not to shout or yell, but rather use radios to communicate with one another (Coldwell). All of these are efforts to abide by the regulations, but still work to lessen the noise in the air.
The design of airport structures is also a big aspect in how airports can engender much unwanted sound. In ABIA for example, the ceilings are very high and have exposed metal rafters. When noticing the metal rafters, tile floors and large glass windows, it would seem these materials would act as agents for noise to bounce off of; however ABIA architect Larry Speck and his team of designers took a lot of extra steps to help fight this from happening. The metal in the ceiling is in fact perforated, which is acoustically absorbent (Speck). Speck and his team also avoided the problem of rolling luggage strolling boisterously on tile floor by using a different technique for the flooring of the high-traffic areas, like the security stations, halls and baggage claim. They decided on terrazzo flooring because of its smooth texture (Speck). Terrazzo is “a flooring material of marble or stone chips set in mortar and polished when dry” (“Terrazzo”). With this type of flooring, rolling luggage can cruise easily through the airport without making continuous banging noises.
Most airports also use carpet as another sound absorbing material. Tile and terrazzo floors can allow sounds to reverberate; however, carpet “helps to attenuate noise in the departure lounge, which may stem from aircraft taking off on nearby runways” (Edwards 132). Carpet is used in the holding areas and the ticket counter areas, where the wear and tear is not too much for carpet (Coldwell).
Matt Coldwell, ABIA Art and Exhibit Coordinator, points out that the most important thing for keeping the inside of the airport quiet “is the sound proofing of the terminal from the outside noise generated from aircraft engines.” He explains that the windows at Austin Bergstrom are “dual paneled, gas filled” glass which drastically reduces the noise coming from outside (Coldwell). On a tour of ABIA, Coldwell pointed out that there are jute panels along the walls that serve to attract sound from the hustle and bustle inside the airport. Instead of the sound from people, music, announcements, planes, etc., bouncing back off the walls into the mix, the jute sucks up the sound particles and helps to reduce the noise.
Not only do airports have architectural aspects that serve to abate unwanted sound, but many also offer special quiet rooms for passengers to escape to. “Austin Bergstrom does not have a meditation room, but they do have Admiral & President Clubs” which “provide a quieter area for those who have membership” (Coldwell). “The American Airlines Admirals Club is an exclusive area” that allows members to get “away from the noise and semi-chaos of the airport” (Miner). Airports that have meditation rooms include Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Albuquerque, NM, and Newark, NJ. These rooms are “warm and welcoming to those in need of meditation and reflection” (“Meditation”). For those that are easily overwhelmed by a lot of noise and stimulus, these quiet places are a good escape to be able to stay calm.
When airports were first built, not much consideration was given to reducing noise inside the buildings. As aviation increased, and airports became more popular, noise became more of an issue inside of the buildings. Nowadays people are more knowledgeable of the negative effects of noise and do more to avoid it. Airports care about the comfort of their travelers and do a lot to make sure they are comfortable. This includes fighting off unwanted sounds. Planes, the primary source of airport noise, are the reason airports are visited in the first place; thus, airports are noisy. Most noise in airports is “simply unavoidable” but with the help of good design and engineering, loud noise can be combated (Coldwell). Quieter plane engines have been engineered, however, they are still extremely loud. The growing market of sound absorbent materials has helped to allow airports be bearable places. Hopefully in the future there will be even less noise in airports with the help of designers and new products and idea to continue to abate unwanted sound.
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Speck, Larry. Personal interview. 07 October 2008.
Suter, Alice H. “Noise and Its Effects.” Administrative Conference of the United States. November 1991. http://www.nonoise.org/library/suter/suter.htm#effects
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