The Sound of Silence: Stimulating Airport Retail

As an increasing number of airports opt to turn down the din, Tim Radley contributes to an article in Frontier Magazine which takes a look at whether low-noise environments can pave the way for happier shopping



While the warm and welcoming voice over the tannoy and accompanying ‘bing bong’ are often associated with happy holiday memories, loud terminals combined with the noise from the latest travel gadgets are leading to a sensory overload among passengers. In turn, this can heighten stress levels and dampen the desire to shop.

The concept of the silent airport is a step in the right direction for many suppliers and retailers striving to create an environment that’s easier on the nerves. A number of leading hubs around the world are utilising technology to cut down on noise, with 2017 set to be the year the movement really takes off. Indeed, silence was identified as a leading trend for 2017 at the recent Global Wellness Summit, which specifically mentioned silent airports as a growing phenomenon.

The summit identified how hubs such as London City, Bristol, Barcelona El Prat, Warsaw Chopin and Helsinki are turning down the volume with “announcements only made at boarding gates – except in true emergencies – with flight communications instead relayed at silent kiosks and displays and via text and mobile apps”. 

Warsaw Chopin Airport began limiting the number of announcements, in terms of frequency and range, around a year ago, with messages
now shown on the displays of the airport FIDS information system and passengers encouraged to pay attention to information displayed on monitors and boarding times.

“The airport tends to be very busy with a lot of distractions such as brightly coloured signs, monitors, duty free shops and announcements,” notes the airport’s external communications specialist Piotr Rudzki. “All those factors may create a buzz, but it can also leave the passenger disorientated and feeling tired. He or she will want to sit in a quiet place, put on some headphones and listen to music to block out the noise. They won’t want to visit shops.”

The possible solution in this scenario is to scale back the number of announcements that aren’t relevant to all passengers. Bristol Airport, for instance, introduced low noise initiatives in the summer of 2014, with a reduction in the number of passenger tannoy announcements made within the terminal.

Similar changes have been made at Cork Airport in Ireland. “We have automatic volume control on our tannoy system that reacts to the ambient noise and therefore only applies the required volume for announcements to be audible,” says GM of operations Ciaran Carton. “We have also removed a number of automated announcements that were on repeat loops and replaced them with on-demand announcements.”

In addition, the airport encourages its airline colleagues to reduce the number of local announcements made at check-in and boarding gates. “We limit the volume at which music can be played in the retail and F&B outlets,” he adds. “Like most airports, we have ongoing redevelopment projects and we monitor and manage the noise levels and times to ensure the minimum of disruption to customers.”

London City Airport offers real-time flight information via Facebook Messenger and Twitter, with gate and departure information being sent directly to passengers’ devices.

“We invest significantly in London City Airport’s terminal facilities to help passengers enjoy a calm and stress-free environment,” remarks Melanie Burnley, director of customer experience at London City Airport, which is currently nearing completion of a £19 million extension to its West Pier departures area, bringing additional seating and quiet areas for passengers to relax.

“The airport implemented a ‘silent terminal’ policy in 2015, which means only essential announcements are delivered via the public address system. This has been well-received by passengers who, in a recent customer feedback survey, scored the airport favourably for the terminal environment and noise,” reports Burnley.

Frankfurt Airport joined the silent scene in 2014, reducing flight announcements via the terminal PA system by almost half. More recently, there has been a focus on enhancing the quality of stay. “

We have created ‘relax zones’ so that passengers have the chance to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of the passenger terminals in so-called ‘silent chairs’, or find their inner peace in our yoga rooms,” says Robert Payne, corporate communications spokesperson at Fraport AG. “We have also opened the ‘quiet room’ – a non-denominational area where visitors can pause, reflect and find silence and balance.”

As Fraport demonstrates, approaching the silent concept in a more holistic way is valuable for many reasons. Being more mindful of the various sources of noise and its effect on mood and behaviour, while ensuring passengers have the knowledge and information they need to navigate the terminal, is key when it comes to instilling the confidence to browse and buy.  

“The removal of traditional audio announcements will only be beneficial if information is dispersed more freely via frequent and visible information screens, or by mobile communications and alerts,” notes Tim Radley, MD of VM-unleashed and consultant to the retail industry, who has worked in the GTR channel. “This is generally becoming the norm.”

“Enhancing the consumer experience through noise control needs to be coupled with a dynamic geo-location and beacon technology customer strategy,” observes Bill McKimm, a retail strategist and business development director at ThoughtWorks, who has worked with numerous retail and travel brands such as easyJet,, B&Q and eBay.

“Once the passenger has the comfort of knowing that they have their all-important flight information at hand and the confidence that the push notifications are getting to them, then this frees up time for accessible leisure activities. The technology that we have delivered with Bengaluru International Airport brings this together and even provides information on offers and ‘must-buy’ items for shops and restaurants.”

Walk-through duty free shops, for example, are most effective if clear flight information is offered via strategically placed screens after security, before entering the store and once passengers are reassured and relaxed – something of which Radley has insider knowledge.

He elaborates: “In terms of putting passengers in the mood for shopping, quiet airports offer relaxation away from the myriad of distracting messages and ‘last calls’ as long as information is frequently being imparted. 

“On the flip side, alternative sounds have been introduced successfully, such as the Chinese experience over the air-bridge at Gatwick North. The pleasant sounds of running water and birdsong serve to relax the customer and to project their thoughts to the care-free world of holidays, which is always good for shopping.”

It’s certainly important to distinguish between unnecessary and useful noise. As a case in point, London City Airport became the first to introduce music in its security screening area last summer. The combination of ambient electronica and upbeat acoustic could potentially improve the mood of passengers, according to a music psychologist from the University of Sheffield.

“In terms of individual retail stores, the luxury sector will certainly benefit from a sense of calmness against which to play their timeless classics or avant-garde mood music and encourage the slow browse,” opines Radley. “Electronics and fashion retailers may still play their own idiosyncratic brand of music at a somewhat higher tempo and volume, but it will sit with more clarity against the silence outside – again, supplemented by information screens in the stores themselves. Ultimately, customers have to be in the mood to shop.

“They need to be calm and happy. Next, they need to be excited and stimulated. Definitely, silent airports can play an important role in the first aspect of the visit, which the retailers themselves can then leverage in more individual ways thanks to an undisturbed and less distracting wider atmosphere,” concludes Radley.