THE NEW YORK TIMES: BUSINESS TRAVEL CAN BE UNRELENTINGLY LOUD
By: Harriet Edleson
Noise, to a business traveler, can be something as simple as
a conversation on a train or a plane or as unrelenting as the sound of a jet engine on a seven-hour flight.
Among the biggest culprits are the cellphone talkers, the deal makers traveling from New York to Washington in a regular car on the Acela train and the travelers standing in the aisles on planes carrying on extended conversations.
So how do business travelers cope, when even the clicking of a laptop keyboard is disruptive as they try to sleep, work or simply relax?
“I use earphones,” said Mario R.Garcia, a media designer in Tampa, Fla. “I put them on, and they are not connected to anything. They tune out anything.”
Other times, he said, he plugs into music from his iPhone or iPad. “When you have the music, you don’t hear the conversation around you at all.”
Exposure to noise, defined as “unwanted to potentially hazardous sound,” can be “damaging to hearing, affect sleep patterns, affect our ability to concentrate at work, interfere with outdoor recreational activities and even cause accidents,” according to the National Academy of Engineering’s report, “Technology for a Quieter America.” As the world’s population grows, the report continued, “problems with noise are likely to become more pervasive and lower the quality of life for everyone.”
For frequent business travelers, especially international ones, aircraft noise is a way of life. Though planes are considerably quieter than they were 40 years ago, there is still the constant whoosh of air sound in the cabin. “A lot of work has been done on the engine itself in order to make it quieter,” said Eric J. W. Wood, a founder of Acentech, an acoustical consulting company in Cambridge, Mass., and president of the Institute of Noise Control and Engineering. In fact, he said, airplanes are 15 to 20 decibels quieter than 40 years ago.
“If you reduce the sound by 10 decibels, the aircraft is half as loud. If you reduce it by another 10 decibels, it’s half as loud again so it’s a quarter as loud,” Mr. Wood said. Engine noise reduction benefits those on the ground, “but it really helps the passenger in the airplane.” In commercial airplanes, engines are typically mounted on the back of the plane or under the wing, he said.
George C. Maling Jr., an acoustics and noise control expert who is the author of the “Technology for a Quieter America” report, said less air actually went through the jet engine and instead went through the fans that surround it. This made the planes quieter and improved fuel efficiency, he said.
Airlines work with aircraft manufacturers on creating the consumer cabin experience, such as, “How quiet they want the first-class cabin to be,” said Steven J. Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, who has worked in the noise mitigation field for more than 40 years. As to where to sit, he said, “The farther you go forward, on average, the quieter you should find it.”
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health, a quiet library or soft whispers generate a sound pressure level of 30 decibels, while normal conversation generates 60 decibels. In contrast, a subway generates 90 decibels. The level of interior noise on airplanes is about 75 decibels, Mr. Maling said.
Yet despite the search for quiet, some people seek out less than quiet environments to do their work, places like hotel lobbies, coffee shops and bookstores. And that is not necessarily bad.
Research shows that some noise might promote creativity, said Ravi Mehta, co-author of the paper “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” published by The Journal of Consumer Research in December 2012. Based on five experiments with different types and volumes of noise, Mr. Mehta and his colleagues found that a moderate level of noise — 70 decibels in contrast to a low level of 50 decibels — enhanced performance on creative tasks. But higher levels of noise, say, 85 decibels, had the opposite effect, diminishing creativity, Mr. Mehta said. “Seventy decibels is the sweet spot,” he said.
What the study found was that the voices of multiple talkers in the background could enhance creativity, but a single loud voice, like one side of a cellphone conversation, could be too much distraction and interfere with the creative process.
“We want distraction but not a very high level of it,” he said. “It depends on the kind of work you are involved in. If you are looking for new ideas, it’s different than if you are fi ling your taxes, work that requires attention to detail.
“In the creative process, you want the creative juices to flow, you want sound,” Mr. Mehta said, adding that if you are trying to focus on highly technical material, you want quiet. Mr. Orfield, whose company tests headphones, and others said that noise-canceling headphones could help minimize fatigue on long flights. Bose developed headphones for pilots about 20 years ago, and several companies make noise-canceling headphones. The headphones “work for low-frequency noises,” Mr. Orfield said, but not as well in middle and high frequencies. He recommended using foam earplugs first and then the headphones.
“Between the two of them, you get pretty good response,” Mr. Orfield said. He compared the ambient noise on aircraft to working in a factory all day. “The longer the flight, the more you have to adjust in a lot of ways,” he said. So en-route from the United States to Asia, for example, he recommended trying to eliminate the low-frequency rumble in the aircraft. “The noise will fatigue you,” he said.
Trains have their own sounds, and the level of noise depends on the track bed and how smooth the rails and wheels of the train are, Mr. Maling said. In addition, he said, train cars do not have the insulation of airplanes.
And then there are the talkers. Of the 299 revenue-producing seats on an Acela train, 64 are in the quiet car, according to an Amtrak spokesman, Cliff Cole. The rules call for “quiet talking only,” no phone calls and muting all devices. Passengers are asked not to use any device that makes noise, including laptop computers with “audible features enabled.”
It is a noisy world. “People tend to buy quiet when they can,” Mr. Maling said.