A Sign of Change

Ground Clutter

A Sign of Change

By Ralph Hood

September 2004

In 1970 (was it really that long ago?) a popular song complainedabout “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.” Evidently, signs madethe singers mad; but I like signs everywhere, particularly at airports.It should be possible — even easy — to drive into any cityand follow signs to the airport, then to arriving and departing flights, parking options, and general aviation.

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Inside the terminal there should be signs directing the innocent visitor from any location to gates, restaurants, ground transportation, baggage claim, ticket counters, and restrooms. Particularly restrooms.

Although airports come closer to this ideal than other places in most cities, there is room for improvement. (At one airport recently, I arrived at a sign advising me to turn both left and right for my gate. A nearby skycap said the sign “been like that a long time. I keep tellin’ ‘em, but they don’t do nothin'.”)

I asked Paula Hochstetler, head of the Airport Consultants Council (ACC), for the name of an expert on airport signage, and she sent me to Joe Erhart, Apple Designs, Inc. (ADI). Joe literally wrote the FAA-recommended book on the subject — “Guidelines for Airport Signing and Graphics” — and he knew more answers than I had questions.

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First, Joe taught me that correct terminology is not signage, but rather information systems. That covers all of the information needed for wayfinding, flight schedules, notices, and other info needed by those who use airports. He also pointed out that a good system would have both printed and voice directions in multiple languages. I hadn’t even thought of that.

One gripe I have is that signage in most airport check-in areas is totally inadequate. Should you go to counter or kiosk? Take your bags to TSA or airline counter? In what order should you do all of this? Marco Polo couldn’t decipher the mystery — how can little old ladies who travel twice per year cope?

Erhart explained that TSA put out rules in early 2002. A national taskforce of the ACC, with Joe as chair, carefully opined to TSA that the rules missed the boat in some ways. TSA was receptive, but before progress could be made, the whole problem was turned over to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which plans to come up with new rules.

In the meantime, no airport wants to spend money on new information systems knowing that new DHS rules might change everything. In other words, progress is waiting on the same guvmint that was — via TSA — going to standardize security at airports across the country.

So what else is new? Well, as I write this, DHS has contacted Joe’s taskforce, asking for examples of airports that do a good job on info systems. DHS will study those airports, before writing the new rules. Finally, the taskforce will be asked to review and critique the new rules before they are applied.

We are getting somewhere.

Ralph Hood is a Certified Speaking Professional who has addressed aviation groups throughout North America. A pilot since 1969, he’s insured and sold airplanes at retail and distributor levels and taught aviation management for Southern Illinois University. Reach him at ralph@ralphhood.com

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