Op-Ed: Sensory overload and the case for quieter airports

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RGN OP-ED Banner with blue back ground and black wingtipAirports are, by their very nature, vibrant, bustling public spaces with a lot of things going on at the same time. While many people don’t have an issue with that, it can pose real challenges for neurodivergent people or those with certain sensory disabilities, including myself. Being so reliant on sound as a blind man, I find that I’m very prone to sensory overload in airport environments.

In this Op-Ed, I will describe the things that positively and negatively affect my experiences at airports, and provide some recommendations that airports, airlines, and people like me can consider to help make things easier.

Before diving in, I would like to preface this by pointing out that my experiences are just that and don’t automatically apply to everybody else who is neurodivergent or has a sensory disability. We all experience the world differently and have various levels of tolerance for things. But here are my thoughts.

Announcements

The first issue that comes to mind is the number of announcements that are made at an airport. While I understand that some announcements are necessary, even critical, I do think they are often overdone. I would recommend keeping all announcements to a minimum and controlling the volume to a level where they are easily understood but not overwhelming.

What about passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing, I hear you ask? Airlines should improve their app game to ensure that passengers are always getting timely announcements to their devices. Better push notifications would benefit all tech-savvy passengers. But they should also supplement that service by ensuring that all relevant information is displayed on large screens, especially in the gate area. Implementing hearing loops for deaf and hard of hearing passengers in the gate area — as has been done at Phoenix Sky Harbor’s Terminal 3, and elsewhere — would help as well.

Hearing loop sign posted in the airport next to an information screen.

Yes please to hearing loops for the deaf and hard of hearing. image: Stephen O. Frazier

Flooring

When addressing sensory overload, another item for airports to consider is their choice of construction materials. When there’s an option, it really is best to choose materials that will help to minimize noise at the airport. For example, Dallas-Fort Worth International has tiles installed in many of its high-traffic areas, which creates a constant drone of thud noises from all the roller bags being dragged across the floor. While I can understand not using carpet in high-traffic areas, flooring with a smoother surface would greatly reduce the amount of noise made by roller bags. It’s also possible to choose materials that reduce noise by either absorbing sound or reducing echoes.

Quiet rooms and multi-sensory spaces

Another proactive measure airports can take is to offer quiet areas on both sides of security where people who are overwhelmed can relax and reset. Many airports are starting to open sensory spaces or create quiet areas free of announcements and other distractions. I was able to experience San Francisco’s “Quiet Airport” program last year during a weekend trip with my wife for our 10th anniversary and found it to be one of the most relaxing airport experiences I’ve ever had. The new Kansas City International Airport terminal is also a standout, as fellow Runway Girl contributor Harriet Baskas wrote about earlier this year. Kansas City now offers a quiet room and a multi-sensory room for passengers that need it. It’s exciting that this trend is really starting to take off.

Club membership

I will also add that, while not a viable option for infrequent travelers or those with limited financial means, I have found club memberships to be an invaluable tool in my personal toolbox for dealing with sensory overload in airports. That’s because most clubs are isolated from the rest of the concourse and provide a comfortable area to grab a snack and drink while passing time before a flight. The occasional club that is open to a concourse is, for obvious reasons, the exception to this rule and something I will try to avoid on my travels.

Rotation

It may sound like I want terminals to be as quiet as possible, but the truth is that I would just like to keep it within reason. For example, my new home airport of Austin often hosts live music and usually has music playing in the background. While I haven’t been at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport while they’ve had live music yet, I was lucky enough to experience it near my gate on a recent work trip to Nashville. There was something nice and calming about hearing a talented woman and her guitar playing near my gate while waiting for my flight home.

While it’s easy to experience sensory overload at an airport, planning on the part of airlines, airport operators, and the traveling public can help make the airport less overwhelming. Here’s hoping that the stakeholders involved can continue to make changes to the airport experience to make it easier for folks like me.

About the Author

Contributing writer Justin Yarbrough is a blind accessibility coach, embedding within development teams and working with them to incorporate accessibility into the software development lifecycle. Previously, Justin was an accessibility specialist for an online community college, where he worked to improve the accessibility of online course content and served as the president of the affinity resource group for employees with disabilities throughout the community college district. Justin has been awarded the Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies certificate from the International Association of Accessibility Professionals and has written about accessibility-related topics for multiple publications and spoken about accessibility for podcasts and conferences including axe-con and AccessU. Justin lives in the Austin, Texas area with his wife Jennifer, cats Sam and Dean, and dog Quinn.

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Featured image credited to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and DRAW Architecture + Urban Design