What Airport Noise Complaints Teach Us About Time Management

As a consultant, I spend so much time on planes that the noise of a jet engine is a soothing lullaby. But for the people who live near the airport, those same noises can keep them awake at night. Most airports have noise abatement programs in place to balance the needs of community members with the economic benefits a community gets from traveling business people and leisure travelers.

Recently, two economists at George Mason University, Eli Dourado and Raymond Russell, looked at the complaints citizens registered about airport noise, rather than the noise itself. And what they found can teach us a lot about how we can better manage the noisy voices in our own lives.

Consider this case from their research:

In 2015, for example, 6,852 of the 8,760 complaints submitted to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport originated from one residence in the affluent Foxhall neighborhood of northwest Washington, DC.2 The residents of that particular house called Reagan National to express irritation about aircraft noise an average of almost 19 times per day during 2015

This isn’t just the case at one airport, it held at nearly every airport in the study. At Denver International, four households accounted for 96% of the almost 5,000 complaints. Three-fourths of the complaints came from one household, and in total only forty-two households made a call at all.

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Over 5,000 complaints, but most coming from only four people in a metropolitan area with almost 2.5 million people.

When we see a lot of complaints about an issue, we tend to assume something is wrong. If we’re hearing complaints all the time, we think something is a big deal. But oftentimes those complaints represent a small group of very vocal people, not the majority.

Look at your own life. How often do you let the loudest voice, or the most frequent complainer, dictate your time, rather than the most pressing needs?

How often do you make product or service decisions based on one noisy customer, even if it isn’t what’s right for your business as a whole?

Do you give one judgmental voice in your life too much control over your feelings, decisions, or actions?

Gathering feedback from customers, the community, friends, or family is important. But we need to contextualize that feedback before we act on it. Is it representative? What is it telling us about the world? How can we make sure that we use feedback as a tool without letting it become a dictator?

And when we do so, we need to make sure we have a way to turn down the loudest voices so that we can carefully make tradeoffs about the things that really matter, not what our most tenacious critic thinks is important.