Why do Airport Employees Hate the Temperature?

Last May, my teammate Sam and I traveled to Taiwan to meet with potential component suppliers, investors, and manufacturing partners for the Garage+ Startup Global Program. On our way back, we spent a few excruciating hours in the Taipei airport, where the air conditioning system had broken down. It was probably 90 ºF without a breeze in sight, and everybody was sweating like crazy.

Eventually, I found that taking my sandals off and standing barefoot on the marble floor helped me dissipate heat and stay cooler. But I especially felt bad for the airport staff. They wore suits and button-down collars, and couldn’t get away with tossing off their shoes and socks without getting fired. This experience in Taiwan got me wondering whether airport staff tend to suffer from temperature discomfort even more than the passengers.

Luckily, scientists at the Kent School of Architecture looked at precisely that question! In a recent article, the authors examined the thermal comfort of employees and passengers in several UK airport terminals.

The results were striking: employees are far more sensitive to temperature than passengers. Take a look at this plot showing the votes for the most disliked aspect of the terminal buildings by employees and passengers:

Main complaint from airport employees (left) and airport passengers (right). Courtesy of Kotopouleas and Nikolopoulou. “Thermal comfort conditions in airport terminals: Indoor or transition spaces?.”

The thermal environment is by far the most common source of frustration for employees (over 35% of them). Meanwhile, passengers don’t seem bothered at all: less than 5% of them listed the thermal environment as their main complaint. That’s a huge discrepancy. What’s going on here?

My first hypothesis was that passengers simply have bigger problems to complain about. After all, they have to wait in endless security lines, wait for delayed flights, and find their way around an unfamiliar space. But my hypothesis is entirely contradicted by the fact that the most common complaint from passengers is nothing particularly. Passengers are simply less bothered overall than employees!

My second hypothesis was that the airport thermostat is set for passengers, leaving airport employees feeling uncomfortable and powerless. There may be some truth to that: the preferred temperature for employees is about 0.4 ºC lower than for passengers, according to the study. In other words, staff run warmer. That might be because of their required work clothing, or because of their level of physical activity.

But the authors uncovered an even more striking reason: employees are less tolerant of temperature deviations. In their words of the authors:

Passengers demonstrated higher tolerance of the thermal conditions and consistently a wider range of comfort temperatures, whereas the limited adaptive capacity for staff allowed for a narrower comfort zone.

“Adaptive capacity” — maybe you are wondering what the authors are talking about here? It turns out that our bodies are constantly adapting to the temperature around us, so small actions (adjusting clothing, shifting posture, switching from sitting to standing) play a critical role in how we unconsciously make ourselves comfortable in different environments. Our ability to take these small actions is called our “adaptive capacity”.

We all have some adaptive capacity, but this study makes it clear that airport employees have a more limited adaptive capacity than passengers, which makes them unable to deal with temperatures that feel perfectly fine to passengers.

By the end of our adventure in the Taipei airport, I felt incredible relief at getting out of the heat. But the fact that I was able to remove my sandals and cool myself through the marble floor, while airport staff were stuck wearing socks and shoes, was actually a perfect example of our different adaptive capacities.

It was another reminder that thermal is inherently personal.

Work cited:

Kotopouleas and Nikolopoulou, Thermal comfort conditions in airport terminals: Indoor or transition spaces?, 2016