Airports Tap AV to Be Less Annoying

Airport AV these days goes way beyond the mind-numbing CNN on concourse displays. Digital signage and audio opportunities proliferate from retail to restaurants even to live sound stages.

Dan Daley
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Airports have morphed from transportation hubs into retail and culinary destinations in and of themselves.

A walk through the concourses in North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), for instance, reveals an array of options that rivals what can be found at a major shopping mall: 48 restaurants, from fast-food outlets like Pizza Hut and Quizno’s to casual-dining spots like Chili’s to regional favorites like Phillips Famous Seafood and Carolina Beer Co.; and 34 retail stores at which one could buy anything from a newspaper (Charlotte’s Landing Gifts & News) to a hat (Lids) to a back massager (Brookstone) to a motorcycle (Harley-Davidson).

You can even stop by the airport’s aviation museum, which among the 50 aircraft it has on display is the US Airways Airbus A320 safely landed by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger in the Hudson River in January 2009 when both its engines shut down.

These attractions (or distractions, perhaps) are there to lure the more than 600 million people who pass through U.S. airports annually, creating a huge and largely captive audience for brands and employment for more than 1.3 million people, in the process generating $1.2 trillion in economic activity — seven percent of the total U.S. workforce and eight percent of GDP.

Photos: What’s New in Airport AV?

Many, if not most of these establishments, use extensive audio, video and digital signage, something that airports themselves are using more of, as paging systems get more intelligible sound and video screens with seemingly only one or two channels — usually CNN or Fox News — proliferate to ward off boredom for those without airline-club access.

If the dining experience in airports is vastly improved, some of that credit ought to go to OTG, which owns and operates more than 200 restaurant and retail locations in 10 airports across North America and has been aggressive about using AV technology to make them competitive with stores anywhere else.

One way they’ve done that is by partnering with EL Media Group, a New York City AV integrator that specializes in audio systems and their content. “We’re not your typical 70-volt company,” says Ernie Lake, EL Media Group’s co-founder and creative director. “We’re not putting in background music systems — we’re building foreground music systems.”

By that, Lake means they’ve been designing and installing audio systems using higher-end components and then custom-curating the music that will play through them. “We’ll look at the audience for a particular restaurant and then choose the music for it,” says Lake.

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Those music files are assembled at the company’s Manhattan offices and streamed to servers in each of the 46 restaurants and shops they’ve worked on so far for OTG, in airports like LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark Liberty (EWR).

A typical installation is Prime Tavern, at EWR, where EL Media installed SoundTube Entertainment 600 series pendulum speakers, to keep the sound localized, along with SoundTube’s 1001 in-ceiling subwoofers, powered by Lab Gruppen 20X amplifiers and managed by Symetrix Radius DSP, playing a mix of modern alt-rock and classic rock.

“The whole effort is designed to make people want to come earlier, stay longer and spend more money,” says Lake.

Speech Intelligibility Scheduled for Arrival

The general public may grumble about their occasional interaction with the Transportation Safety Administration, but AV systems integrators in this market deal with TSA on a daily basis. George Truong, operations manager for AVI-SPL’s Denver office, says the key to successfully navigating the TSA’s gauntlet is to understand their processes.

“There’s a lot of paperwork to getting employees and equipment cleared to work airside,” he says. “It’s up to us to do a lot of fact finding — they don’t always make that easy — but once you get that together it can go pretty smoothly.”

Speech intelligibility has long been the audio bugaboo when it comes to airports and other transportation hubs. Truong says that while conventional acoustical treatments aren’t usually aesthetically appropriate to tame the reflected sonic energy bouncing off of the ubiquitous glass and tile in concourses, systems that more precisely aim sound are being increasingly used.