How to Address Competing Audio Needs at Airports

June 20, 2023
Emergency announcements must take precedence in message prioritization and having a message stack that allows for multiple priority levels can be very helpful.
Emergency announcements must take precedence in message prioritization and having a message stack that allows for multiple priority levels can be very helpful.

Have you ever walked into an airport and immediately been bombarded by sounds coming at you from every direction? From other passengers’ conversations to mechanical noise to overhead pages in a highly reverberant space and music wafting out of retail stores and eateries, it’s a lot to take in and process. Gate change and passenger announcements, safety and security information, background music, and general marketing messaging all compete for each person’s attention, often simultaneously. In emergencies, airport managers must capture the notice of distracted and often stressed passengers to deliver actionable and perhaps critical safety information, which is no easy feat.

Airports have a broad and often lengthy set of requirements that their overall communication system has to meet. Many airports use multiple systems to meet all their communication needs, which can introduce challenges for successfully integrating them together. Zoned paging for individual gate announcements is a common need at most airports, as is “all-call” paging across a single terminal or all terminals for routine or emergency messages. Many airports take their paging zones a step further, sometimes grouping gates at the end of a terminal together or separating baggage claim into its own zone to broadcast arrival details. In addition to periodic pages, background music is often played in terminals to diffuse tension and reduce passenger anxiety. At the same time, retail and dining establishments may have their own background music playing to enhance the user experience and reinforce their brand.

No Two Airports are Alike

Airports are placing increasing importance on the passenger experience as they flow through the airport. While many commonalities exist among airport installations, there are always requirements that make each airport unique. It could be how to access their FIDS or legacy audio systems that need to remain in use, loudspeaker preferences, or many other details. When every installation is intrinsically unique, it becomes imperative to understand the “why” of many requirements to make the best system recommendations. For instance, how can they create a unique and compelling customer experience, minimize travel stress, and how best to share flight information and signage to guide passengers while having a reliable and effective mass notification system to keep everyone safe during emergencies. Throughout the systems' lifecycles, it's critical to ongoing success to recognize the needs of all system users or “customers,” including gate agents, IT staff, security personnel, and others.

Managing Competing Needs

While airports often deploy multiple systems for audio announcements, it creates the potential to compete with one another. Retail and eateries may want to avoid pages being made over their systems for fear of annoying or upsetting customers. And some retail audio systems are wholly separate from the airport’s mass notification system. Yet, airport managers are required to communicate audible and intelligible messages to all affected persons during security situations. Most transportation hubs have strict requirements for audibility and intelligibility per local or national fire codes such as NFPA 72. According to NFPA 72, “public mode signaling” is required to provide and maintain a sound pressure level of 15 decibels (dBA) above ambient sound levels. Those messages may take the form of live or pre-recorded messages, sometimes in multiple languages. So meeting everyone’s needs is often a masterclass in compromise.

Adapting to Challenges and Ever-Changing Priorities

With the business challenge for the airports being to constantly refine the passenger experience, the definition of what makes a great experience is changing at a dizzying rate. The challenge for system integrators is that making changes in an airport is akin to making a hairpin turn with a cruise ship. They are physically complex installations with complicated decision-making processes, often with multiple construction projects happening simultaneously and long funding cycles depending on airport jurisdiction and governance. These factors contribute to long sales cycles with equally long installation and support cycles. Those extended periods create long lifespan requirements for communication systems and products, which is hard to maintain when the mass notification industry rapidly evolves its products with new features and capabilities. Thus, sustaining a system over 10-15 years (which is common for airports) presents challenges that need to be managed constantly.

System Consolidation is the Future

Modern mass communication systems have to be flexible to be a viable solution and there are a lot of benefits of a homogenous, extensible system architecture that can scale in size and feature set. Multiple platforms offer integration capabilities for airport personnel to control audio in every zone and customize the zones through software rather than making physical hardware changes or running additional cables. Also, an entire airport cannot be flipped and installed like a light switch, so a successful system must allow for gradual system migration and interface with the existing system to prevent any operational loss during the migration.

Emergency announcements must take precedence in message prioritization and having a message stack that allows for multiple priority levels can be very helpful. Audio systems in retail should not be left to the vendor to supply, particularly as airports prioritize quality retail and shopping experiences to please visitors. Instead, retail and dining should be treated as individual zones to give them local control over the music they play while still maintaining a connection to the overall mass communication system (which is critical).

While focusing primarily on system flexibility related to audio content, that’s by no means the extent of what you should expect from a robust mass notification system. Today’s communication systems must often integrate with FIDS, fire panels, cloud databases, door access systems, camera systems, burglar systems, 911 emergency call systems, gunshot detection systems, digital signage, and more. Investing time in a well-appointed and flexible system design that supports multiple use cases is time well-spent in the long run.

Audio Improvements at the Louisville Airport

The Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport is undergoing a multi-year, $400 million renovation. As part of the effort, the airport built a new, state-of-the-art $18.5 million airport operations center in August 2021, which featured multiple upgrades to the airport’s security and communications systems, including technology and products from AtlasIED.

The operations center serves as the airport’s nerve center for all operations and includes an around-the-clock communications hub and team. The center allows operations and security staff to continuously monitor and respond to operational challenges, including communicating with internal personnel or visitors over the public-facing paging system.

At the heart of the Airport’s new communications system is the AtlasIED GLOBALCOM Enterprise Communications System, which allows the operations center team to connect a variety of devices or endpoints to the central network. The platform manages all the audio and connects to visual communication feeds from around the airport.

The system includes an ACS controller that controls the flow of communication traffic and serves as a gateway for external I/O devices, VoIP telephone systems and analog audio sources. The ACS was integrated with a lifeline announcement controller to meet the requirements for life safety emergency notification systems. The unit performs overall supervision of the entire system of emergency communication stations, digital zone manager amplifier units, and other network peripherals and provides reporting of equipment alarm conditions.

 The technology allows the operations center and staff can communicate with and coordinate the right people to act quickly under any circumstance.

System consolidation will help avoid competing audio throughout an airport and provide centralized control while still meeting the varying needs of all stakeholders. Stakeholders should include all system users — gate agents, IT staff, administrators, retail owners, and more. Discussing each group’s needs as part of documenting system requirements will help increase user adoption downstream when the system goes live.

There are many effective mass communication systems available. While budget is always a considerable factor in any deployment, airport facility managers should give equal consideration to the total cost of ownership (TCO) and product reliability, given the typical length of service for the system. 

Even if a system is “easy to use,” training is paramount. Training builds trust in the system and, by extension, the parties involved in using and maintaining it. Many people behave differently during emergencies and other times of stress than they would under normal conditions. It can be harder to comprehend messages, follow directions, or even process the information they already know, such as getting to designated locations. The more training airport staff have in using the system, the better the expected outcome should an emergency occur.

Justin Young is the General Manager at AtlasIED. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, he has expertise in materials management, operations, test engineering, and quality assurance, along with his decades of AV industry experience.