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NEWS Last modified on March 31, 2014

Art of noise: Why sound is a valuable tool for safety and comfort at airports

When thinking of an airport lounge or a terminal building, what is the first idea that pops into your head? Chances are it’s an image rather than a sound.

While reading the piece it may aid your concentration to listen to this sample from the Sound Agency...  

It’s unsurprising really – while many airports offer distinctive and striking visual impressions, most seem to boast the same soundscape of an unappealing and noisy environment.

Yet sound plays a significant, though perhaps unconscious, role when we come to form our perceptions of a place.

It can induce stress, evoke feelings of excitement, and even encourage us to relax – and it seems odd that it is often nothing more than an afterthought in too many building designs.

To some extent, this blindness (or deafness) to the impact that sound has on us has become even more serious in the modern day. 

As populations continue to expand we’re living in a world that is steadily becoming noisier.

Research from the World Health Organization has found that regular exposure to noise levels of just 50dB is enough to increase blood pressure, leading to a higher risk of heart attacks (as a point of reference average noise level in a busy office or classroom can exceed 65dB).

Then, once you get to hospital, the battle continues as the average hospital ward is still being recorded with noise volumes as high as 92dB – nearly double the acceptable standard.

Conversely, silence is not the solution.

The complete absence of noise is just as unnatural. If you clicked on the link at the beginning of this piece, you are now listening to a generative sound installation that Glasgow Airport trialled in its departures terminal.

The scheme was put in place to try to sooth passengers in a potentially stressful environment. In this case researchers found that travellers admitted to feeling more relaxed, even in cases where they hadn’t realised the soundscape was playing.

And perhaps more surprisingly retailers noticed an uplift in sales during the trial, with some periods seeing an increase of nearly 10% in passenger spending.

The Glasgow case study is far from the only example of how sound can have a powerful effect on the local populace.

On the other side of the world, in the town of Lancaster, California, after the local mayor installed a birdsong-based soundscape in the downtown area, reported crime dropped by 15%. 

Organisations including the London Underground are followed this lead and experienced similar gains with several tube stations, including Brixton and Clapham North, noting decreased levels of violence following the introduction of classical music.

However, sound is not simply a tool to keep travellers comfortable – it also plays a key role in ensuring the safety and security of the facility (as well as both staff and passengers alike).

Airports are used by multi-national, transient populations that aren’t familiar with the layout of terminal buildings. During an emergency situation instructions need to be clear and easily intelligible – making no assumptions of knowledge on the part of the public.

The traditional ‘ringing bell’ is at best outdated and at worst can be outright dangerous causing panic among passengers and failing to give adequate information to facilitate a safe and orderly escape. 

So what is the modern solution? Voice evacuation systems (VES), delivering clear, concise and targeted messages (often in multiple languages) hold the key.

While the importance of building evacuations simply cannot be disputed, the manner by which the evacuation is carried out is certainly up for debate.

We (Biamp Systems) commissioned some research to explore the public’s attitude to emergency evacuations and the findings were significant. A substantial portion of respondents – 35%  – agreed that instructions delivered by an audio voiceover system would make them feel calmer.

Being able to both calm people down and direct them away from danger is the goal of anyone responsible for evacuating buildings or facilities, whether it’s an office block, a hotel, or a multi-terminal airport.

Perhaps the main benefit of a more sophisticated audio system is that it can provide real-time information to a building’s occupants, directing them along the safest exit routes.

For example, in the case of an airport evacuation, passengers in one terminal may need to use the west exits, whilst at the same time passengers in an alternative terminal need to be directed towards the east exits.

In this instance it is vital to have a system that provides zone management capabilities and allows location-specific information to be accurately communicated to people in varying areas or zones throughout the airport. 

So how far does the potential stretch? 

It’s clear that taking control of airport soundscapes can have a positive effect, avoiding the aggravation of uncontrolled noise and offering tangible benefits such as avoiding panic, calming passengers and even bumping up retail sales.

What is exciting is that even small improvements to the sound design within a terminal building can bring about real value for airport operators – with this in mind we must begin to design soundscapes with the same care and attention that is afforded to the interior.

For more information, I encourage you to read our whitepaper ‘Building in Sound’ which can be found here. I suspect you’ll never listen to sound the same way again.

• Graeme Harrison is executive vice president of marketing for Biamp Systems.

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