As an electrical engineer, I’ve humbly learned to recognize that EE is the fundamendal discipline. Almost everything1 can be described by circuits and signals and systems. Accordingly, I tend to explain the world by the rules of the field.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) is a pretty versatile principle. It means exactly what it says: it represents, as a figure of merit, the ratio of useful signal (information) to background noise.

Whoever designs airport these days2 apparently has a problem with good SNR. Here’s the situation unfolding at JFK airport right now:

  • Loud, echoey halls.
  • The industrial cacaphony of bins endlessly banging and clattering against steel rollers at security checkpoints.
  • “Laptops out of the bags, folks, shoes off! Laptops out of the bags!”
  • Rap music playing on the PA–in the hallways, restaurants, and even jetways. Say what you will about this genre, but you know what rap is not? Easy to ignore.
  • The mindless banter of talking-head cable news shows booming from televisions scattered throughout the terminal. (And how do they talk so urgently, so verbosely without ever saying anything?)
  • Long-winded gate announcements being made at MAXIMUM VOLUME (well beyond what’s necessary to overcome hearing impairment) for multiple flights at the same time.
  • Constant recorded admonishments to mind the security of your luggage. Does anyone even hear these words anymore? Who are they trying to reach?
  • Ear-piercing alarms accompanied by strobe lights sounding to announce when jetway doors have been propped open for some slightly non-standard duration.

If you look closely, you can see the results. I’m wearing earplugs. Frequent business travelers all seem to be wearing noise-canceling headphones. People making phone calls duck into stores or restrooms seeking out marginally quieter spaces3. Infrequent travelers look a little shell-shocked. It feels like everyone is trying in some way to escape the very environment the airport’s creators created.

There is a growing movement for announcement-free airports, but I haven’t encountered any in the US. Bergen, Helsinki, and at least some London Heathrow terminals seem to be leading the charge. Bergen, in particular, struck me as having impressive architectural treatment for acoustics. The security area made almost no noise at all. It was calm and peaceful. (And also beautifully illuminated.)

I wonder why Boston can’t have this.


  1. No really.
  2. I’m terribly sorry I’m always writing about airports. They’re just an easy target!
  3. Remember phone booths?