The Right Kind of Quiet

Ivar C. Satero

The Right Kind of Quiet

If you’re like me, you may feel that your airport is a little too quiet right now. It’s an all-too-tangible reminder of the reduced passenger activity brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The din of a busy airport is missing right now, and with it, all the things that come from a healthy, robust airport industry… employment, revenues, facility development, growth.

Ivar C. Satero is the airport director at San Francisco International Airport. With more than 25 years of experience at SFO, he has led a wide variety of capital improvement projects, including the construction of new terminals, roadways, a light rail system, rapid transit into SFO and an on-airport hotel.

So this might seem an unusual time to be working on an initiative to make our terminals even quieter, but that’s exactly what’s happening at San Francisco International (SFO), through a program called “Quiet Airport.” And the goal is to create an experience that is quiet for the right reasons, even when the day comes that we’re busy again.

In truth, the Quiet Airport program actually started before the pandemic, at a time when SFO was setting new passenger traffic records each year. As terminals swelled with travelers, so, too, did all the familiar sounds of air travel… the distant rumble of aircraft, announcements and conversation in multiple languages, and the din of equipment, people and movement. As our activity levels grew, so, too, did the frequency of these sounds.

The concept of ambiance usually doesn’t carry much weight in customer satisfaction surveys. More urgent topics, such as wait times, wayfinding and cleanliness usually drive how travelers feel. But for SFO, we found that ambiance was, in fact, relevant and played an important part in overall satisfaction. While our terminal renovation efforts had invested heavily in design and amenities, we realized that noise in our terminals was competing with, rather than complementing, these other considerations.

With this in mind, the SFO Customer Care team began the Quiet Airport program in 2018 with the creation of new policies for airport tenants to limit their sound footprints and establish guidelines around the use of music in tenant spaces. The following year, the team focused on a larger issue: how the airport, airlines and tenants were using the public address (PA) systems.

To tackle this issue, the team began with the area of greatest need: our International Terminal. Dozens of carriers share this facility, including the PA system, which was used heavily to make boarding calls, solicit passengers for document checks and announce multiple final boarding calls. As one of the fastest-growing airports for international traffic in the U.S., the din of overhead announcements was escalating to a roar, with over 200 PA system calls being made per day, lasting an average of 30 seconds each. During peak summer periods, guest complaints about these announcements outnumbered those about wait times and flight delays. 

Airlines weren’t the only source of overhead announcements at SFO. The system was also used to communicate paging requests on behalf of federal agencies, airport partners and the general public. While some of this content is necessary for safety and security purposes, broadcasting all such information through the airport was becoming ineffective.

To solve this, we established smaller paging zones, managed by our communications and dispatch center, which target the area appropriate for each message. Final boarding calls in pre-security areas were eliminated, and such calls in post-security areas were confined to a more realistic radius for passengers. We similarly focused gate change announcements on only the zones around the original and revised gates. As a result, the terminal-wide announcements that remained had greater emphasis.

Overall results have been very positive. Terminal-wide exposure to public announcements has been reduced by 77% with no noticeable impact on the quality of service or awareness of information. In the International Terminal alone, we estimate that more than 90 minutes of unnecessary announcements have been eliminated each day.

So when air travel does recover back to the levels we saw before the pandemic, we hope that travelers will find something that was previously harder to come by in our terminals: a little peace and quiet.

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