Can you hear me now?

A little over a year ago I asked a simple question: How quiet do you want it to be on the airplane the next time you fly?

photo

Spending some “quiet” time visiting the A380 flight deck at Farnborough in July.

That Sound of silence blog generated one of the highest comment counts we’d had here up to that date, and also created quite a buzz out in the aviation world. As one person put it, I was “roasted” on Airliners.net.

A lot of you had strong opinions about my suggestion that there might be such a thing as an airplane that was too quiet. Truth is that blog was based both on our own research and on anecdotal media reports from early flights on the A380.

Well, now that the A380 has been in regular service for a while, it seems other folks are having the same reaction. Someone on FlyerTalk last month related their experience with hearing people snoring. And a couple of weeks ago a colleague sent me copy of a recent “Double je” column from the French publication Challenges. It was an intriguing item titled, “The Airbus A380 has a major defect .. it is too quiet!

The column reports on an informal in-flight conversation with a senior Airbus executive in which the executive breezily chats with his seat mate about a variety of issues facing the company. Among them, that during its first year in service the A380 has encountered an unexpected problem. Evidently, there is feedback that the airplane is too quiet, particularly in first class. Apparently some first class passengers have complained they can’t hold private conversations anymore.

It’s an interesting perspective, considering that just last year an Airbus executive declared that there’s no such thing as an aircraft that is too quiet, and called my blog “embarrassing.”

Anyway, the Challenges piece goes on to conclude that the issue is being taken so seriously that there might need to be some background music (white noise?) played in the airplane, like the canned music played in supermarkets.

May I suggest perhaps some Simon and Garfunkel?

Comments (20)

G (France):

This interesting device should be proposed as standard equipment on Too Quiet Flights (or "TQF").

Norman (Long Beach, California, United States):

Definitely, this reminds me of the old A340 ad on AW&ST where the person on the front of the cabin tells the person in the rear of the cabin who is snoring to shh! and the guy snoring in the back of the cabin says sorry.

The Airbus A380 has made a lot of notoriety all over the world for being quiet, I think a few things that makes it quiet is that the walls on both decks are wide as the shape of the cabin and the shape of the exterior is different, certainly the engines very high bypass makes the plane quiet, and also sound insulation of any plays a huge part in keeping the A380 quiet.

I think the Boeing 747-8/I and the 787 may challenge
the A380 because the engine nacelles are serrated in
the trailing edge.

I don't think it a bad thing to have planes that are "too quiet" because this only means less noise for the neighborhoods around airports like Long Beach, Orange County, and Burbank and other airports in urban areas. I think one example of a plane that would be "too quiet" is a plane in which one cannot hear when the engine is running, I think the "humm" of a plane in assuring while on taxi and in flight.

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

I remember the reaction - predictable. Here we had a top salesman saying something beyond new frontiers. People took it as yet another attack on the Whale Jet. Of course, if it was not a researched topic it would be silly to say something like that. The airliners.net forums are always a good read. I highly recommend them!

Reminds me of when Boeing was flying the quieter A340 cabin cross-section in the more spacious 777 to the air shows.

Chris C (South Africa):

This is indeed a rather interesting topic on airplane cabin noise levels. On the one hand, a passenger would want a very quiet cabin for peace and relaxation. On the other hand, a passenger would definitely not want to hear other passengers’ conversations, noise from the galleys and even general cabin noise such as the opening and closing of the overhead stowage bins.

It would seem logical that a “compromise” of sorts is reached to allow for the best-of-both-worlds. I for one have a few hundred hours on the 747-400 and have found the cabin noise to be acceptable, whilst the noise levels on the 737-800 are beautiful.

I for one find the soft hum of the powerful engines and the suppressed air-flow noise around the airplane to be relaxing.

Phil (Wokingham UK):

I recall when the 747 & 757 became the benchmark for improved cabin noise supression after the thunderous earlier turbojets.

Primarily traveling longhaul on sectors usually exceeding twelve hours I consider it absurd to say that a cabin can be to quiet. I confidently confirm the quieter the cabin the better, on the more noisier types a pair of Bose headphones assists this process by deadening cabin noise and improve on IF audio.

Without mentioning either of the prime aircraft manufacturers I do confirm one does generally have a more raucous cabin environment across it's aircraft portfolio that the other.

Pending my first trip on an A380 & having experienced the rest I consider the current quietest long haul aircraft to be the A340 & where possible fly it, similarly I avoid twin ETOP rated aircraft like the plague in preference of four fans, perhaps I'm paranoid or is it safer?

Nellie:

I tend to agree that a quiet airplane is simply not pleasant. For me, at least, there's something comforting about hearing the engines running and also about being able to talk with your neighbor and not worry that someone several rows away is listening in.

In the same way that you wouldn't want your car engine roaring so loudly that you couldn't hear your passengers, I wouldn't want the engine of a plane to completely drown out my conversation so that whoever I'm talking to can't hear me, but some white noise from the plane itself is definitely welcome. I think some passengers may undervalue that white noise.

There's also a part of our subconscious that needs the noise. A completely silent cabin makes me think of the Titanic when the engines shut off. Not a good sign. In that way, a little noise keeps us assured that everything is running properly. It give us peace of mind, especially for those who get nervous every time they step foot on an airplane.

In the end, it comes down to knowing your customer better than they know themselves. I guess Airbus should do their research a little more thoroughly next time.

Barun Majumdar (Seattle, WA, USA):

Making an airplane quieter is a technological excellence and of course, not an "embarrassment". By cutting down substantially on noise foot print, airplane may reduce its carbon foot print to some extent as well.

Trent (Dublin, Ireland):

The snoring thing is common though... when flying Crown Class on Royal Jordanian on both their A340 and A310, I find the snoring of other passengers on long overnight flights (BKK-AMM/AMM-BKK) keeps me awake. If the A380 is quieter, which I assume it is, it's only going to exacerbate the problem. Total silence would be a bad thing, quite frankly.

Brad Jensen (Everett, WA, USA):

Let's let all our/Boeing customers know that we are truly thinking of them when we tailor and customize our airplane cabins for their comfort. Unlike Airbus we actually do our research and try our hardest to get it right. Sweet white noise dreams everyone.

G (France):

This discussion about annoying sounds is very interesting, but there is one thing that will make a lot of noise next year. I am talking about the total net orders for Airbus and Boeing in 2009.

Will it be an echo of the past? If I remember well, in 1989 the total net orders were close to nil. In 2009 I have the feeling that we are going to hear an interesting sound from the aviation bubble. The question is if we are going to hear "ssshhhhh", "Pop!" or "Bang!". In any case, ear plugs won't help you.

L’histoire se répète.

Eric (Acworth, Georgia):

I think there is an issue with an airplane being too quiet. it is not uncommon for people to sleep with televisions on, fans running, outside street noise, and other "white noise" that they are used to.

Presented with an environment where that noise in any form doesn't exist, it can make for a less than restful sleep.

I have a young daughter who simply cant fall asleep without the TV on in her room. I have a brother in law who insists on a box fan running in their master bedroom, even in winter.

I travel quite heavily for my job and can sleep on airplanes almost instantly. I find the drone of the engines puts me to sleep quickly. I don't like the loud sound of a DC-9 or MD-8x, but the engine noise on a 757 or 767 is no problem. No problem with the smaller Airbus either.

Mike G (Mukilteo, WA USA):

What a concept--850 passengers complaining that the cabin is too quiet!

Perhaps the A380 Upgrade Team should implement a random sound generator: say, a throaty Harley-Davidson--or Vespa--roar, followed 30 seconds later by "Blue Suede Shoes", then by a gobbling turkey accompanying the incomprehensible gibberish of this week's EADS CEO telling the passengers how stunningly wonderful their proposed tanker is.
Or maybe Airbus could print up brochures that say "Please MYOB and don't listen to other passengers ordering drinks, unless you are buying."

This reminds me of the current controversy over the Prius Hybrid car---it is supposed to be so quiet that blind pedestrians can't hear it coming (which begs the question 'Isn't it the responsibility of the drivers to look out for peds, especially with white canes?').

Kevin (Calgary, Alberta, Canada):

Just play a running loop of the back ground drone that they use for the Star Ship Enterprise on Star Trek the Next Generation. That may sound crazy but people are comfortable with that sound and it would sound appropriate for an airliner.

John S. (Lansing, MI):

"Anyway, the Challenges piece goes on to conclude that the issue is being taken so seriously that there might need to be some background music (white noise?) played in the airplane, like the canned music played in supermarkets."

Please, no! Who wants a 14 hour elevator ride?

Richard Mahoney (Everett):

The A340 is a very quiet airplane - which apparently is due to their foam core insulation blankets - similar in design to that which was on the initial 777s. However, aside from being quiet, the A340 has cabin conditioning issues which is apparent to economy class passengers. Many A340s that I have been on had heated floors around the galley and main entry doors because of their poor temperature control.

Their temperature control challenges is no secret to passengers because I also have seen strip chart recorders in pursur stations on A340 revenue flights collecting cabin data. In contrast, the A320 is very noisy because it has a lot of hydraulic actuation noise particularly in the tail where the yaw damper frequency is apparent by the constant swish-swish ..

However, not to let Boeing off the hook here either, I think the 747 nose gear snubber is "alarming" to those in first class that have never flown on a 747 before. However, I have to agree with one comment - I love the roar of four 747 engines on takeoff - but only on takeoff !

Steve (Miami, FL):

The idea that a plane is too quiet leaves me baffled. What's more technically challenging? What ever happened to lowering noise pollution? If you like the sound of engines, just get a recording and play it for the duration of the flight, if it makes you feel better.

George Rizov (Miami, Florida):

For those of you that find that the noise levels in the cabin are not loud enough, I recommend the song “Jet” by Paul McCartney & Wings.

Brandon (Boca Raton, Florida):

There is a reason for everything and Airbus's reason is because they wanted a quiet interior and because they wanted to control the amount of bad emissions.

Marcelo (Los Angeles, CA):

I can see a point in the crew calling an aircraft "too quiet" if the passenger's noise gets into the crew rest areas where they need to rest. It would probably be easy to find a solution to that.

As far as the passenger areas, I cannot see how it would be bad for the aircraft to be too quiet. If passengers want more noise, they can bring it with them in whatever audio format they see fit. Aircraft are public places that we share with up to hundreds of strangers at a time. Except for the lavatories, there is nothing private on an airplane; people can hear your conversations and see your computer screen.

People didn't complain when the trains in Japan and Europe became quieter, or have they? Why make reducing cabin noise on an aircraft, which is a good thing in my opinion, into an issue then?

Johan (Antwerp, Belgium):

I do guess it is easier to fix a cabin considered too quiet by playing some white noise than to fix a loud cabin! Or are we going to get free noise cancelling headsets?

Noise is one of the most underestimated forms of pollution in our society. So children can't go to sleep without the television being switched on? How normal is that?

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