PA Announ-

Public address announcements can contribute to the acoustical pollution of the airport.

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Tags: systems design, wayfinding,
directionality, sensory (acoustic)


Design Decisions

Airports use the public address (PA) system announcements to inform passengers about service status updates, ground transportation options, on-going construction efforts, calls for boarding, delays, and emergencies. A number of factors contribute to the voice, timing, volume, message format, and repetition of announcements in the airport.

First, most airports around the world use standardized announcements from a select few companies which provide the voice recordings for paging systems. As a result, most English announcements at airports worldwide share the same voices - that of either Carolyn Hopkins or Jack Fox. Their voices can be heard at more than 200 airports, including John F. Kennedy Airport, Incheon International Airport, and Charles de Gaulle Airport [1, 2].

Timing of the call-to-gate PA announcement is  negotiated between airlines and airport [3]

Second, the timing of call-to-gate announcements are determined by an agreement between the airlines and the airport. Airlines and airports agree on gate announcement rules in advance to ensure that announcements are not exploited in favor of either party. If the announcements are made too early, there is a negative impact on airport operators’ retail revenue, as the passengers are guided to the gate lounge away from retail. However, if the announcements are made too late, there can be a negative impact on ensuring that passengers are boarded in time, leading to flight delays [3].

Thirdly, characteristics such as the volume, message format, and the repetition of announcements are standardized, following recommendations by bodies such as the National Academy of Engineering [4]. These recommendations can be as specific as dictating the order of information conveyed, or the length of a pause between repetitions. These guidelines include explanations for these recommendations, such as “Repeating a message after a very short delay allows time for non-native listeners to process what they are hearing and understand its meaning. The delay must be brief: if the delay between the original and the repeated message is too long, passengers may have returned to conversations, phones, tablets, or other distractions and fail to catch the entire message again” [4].

Effects on Passengers

In the myriad of acoustical distractions that characterize the airport experience, PA announcements are being drowned out by the roar of jet engines, beeping of machines, door alarms, and other background noise. It is difficult to get passengers to listen to, or to comprehend announcements in an airport setting.

First, the acoustic properties of the spaces themselves are not conducive to reflecting clear and intelligible sound. The terminals tend to be large halls with high ceilings, many hard surfaces, and lengths often greater than five times the width, contributing to noticeable echoes and distorted sounds [4]. These challenges of room dimensions, material properties, and other spatial components of the airport are compounded by other background noise - of people talking, TV screens, HVAC systems, and escalators [5].

Secondly, there are also human factors and behavioral tendencies to take into consideration. Studies that showed that both experienced and first-time fliers were unlikely to pay much attention to auditory messages [4]. The aural bombardment led passengers to tune out many of the announcements.

Acoustical pollution at airports is an issue that goes beyond garbled messages and inattentive passengers. There have been several instances of panic caused by incidents of loud noises inside the terminal. For example, in August 2016, two different U.S. airports experienced two separate incidents of panic and evacuations, where people believed that guns had been fired or bombs had been found [6].

“When 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” [4].


Furniture at the sensory rooms at
Pittsburgh International Airport for travelers on
the autism spectrum [8].

What if airports adopted a “silent airport policy”?

A number of airports such as the London City Airport, Helsinki Airport, and Barcelona El Prat,  has adopted the “silent airport policy”, where PA announcements in most spaces of the airport are made only for emergencies, lost children, and flight delays, and announcements for flights are made only in their specific boarding gate areas [5]. This effort intends to help reduce noise pollution throughout the airport.

What if airports provided quiet rooms to offer a sensory respite?

Airports could offer respite in designated areas from the sensory bombardment of the rest of the airport. Pittsburgh International Airport recently opened a suite of "sensory rooms" inside its airside terminal to help travelers on the autism spectrum decompress from the stress of flying [7]. These rooms can be adapted for each user’s preferred sound and light levels.

What if airports learned from the hospital industry’s efforts to improve their sonic landscape?

The movement to change the sonic landscape at hospitals can serve as an inspiration for airports; device manufacturers in both airports and hospitals are led to err on the side of making alarms more startling, because of liability concerns for giving insufficient warning [8]. However, this has contributed to an alarm fatigue and acoustical burnout. Similar initiatives and assessments of airport acoustical environments could take place.

  1. Meet The Voice Of Hundreds Of Airports, Subways And Theme Parks.” n.d. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  2. Anderson, Lessley. 2013. “The Speakers: How Two People Became the Voice of 110 Airports and the NYC Subway.” The Verge. July 18, 2013.
  3. Bradley, A. L. W. 22. The Independent Airport Planning Manual. Elsevier Science.
  4. Improving Intelligibility of Airport Terminal Public Address Systems. Engineering National Academies of Sciences. 2017.
  5. Maksel, Rebecca. n.d. “The War on Annoying Airport Announcements.” Air & Space Magazine. Accessed August 12, 2019.
  6. Pérez-Peña, Richard, Jack Healy, and Jennifer Medina. 2016. “Shooting Scares Show a Nation Quick to Fear the Worst.” The New York Times, August 29, 2016, sec. U.S.
  7. Wilson, Michael, and Joseph Goldstein. 2016. “False Reports of Gunfire at J.F.K. Airport Offer a Real Case Study in Security.” The New York Times, August 18, 2016, sec. New York.
  8. Kids And Adults With Autism Flying Easier In Pittsburgh, With Airport’s Help.” n.d. NPR.Org. Accessed August 12, 2019.
  9. Rueb, Emily S. 2019. “To Reduce Hospital Noise, Researchers Create Alarms That Whistle and Sing.” The New York Times, July 9, 2019, sec. Health.