Astrophysicist shows why it takes so long to board a plane

August 29, 2011

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(This vs That)
An astrophgysicst and a producer team up to show the airlines may be doing it wrong.

Inviting passengers to board a plane all at once would likely fill it faster than the methods most airlines use. If that sounds counterintuitive, consider that it took an astrophysicist to figure it out.

Jason Steffen experienced a problem many of us have run into: when it’s finally time to board the plan, someone (or several people) holds up the whole operation trying to cram an oversized suitcase into the overhead bid. But unlike most of us, Steffen happens to be a Fermilab physicist, with a knack for computer models. So he ran one testing different methods of boarding.

He tested methods where people board from back to front, or window seats followed by middle and aisle. He also tested the time-honored process of boarding in blocks of rows, as passengers have been doing for years. Steffen’s model predicted letting passengers board at random would be quicker than the back-to-front or block boarding models, meaning his calculations show those methods actually slow things down.

Now he’s publishing results from an experiment, which confirm it. He and a producer from the online video show “This vs That” recruited 72 people to act as passengers. They went to a replica airplane that matched the real deal in dimensions and seat layout, housed on a Hollywood soundstage. There, the passengers tried out the five different methods.

In this one trial, anyway, the random boarding was more efficient than filling the plane in blocks or front-to-back. The window-seat-first method took second place. The fastest method is one of Steffen’s own design: boarding alternating rows at the same time, starting with the window seats. The secret, he says, is that it leaves passengers elbow room to stow their luggage at the same time.

Steffen published his predictions three years ago, but got no inquiries from the airlines. He wonders if now, with his experimental results, they might start paying attention.

“Before they could have said, look, this guy’s a crackpot. So what if he wrote some software? We want real data with real passengers,” Steffen said. “Now that we have that, I guess we’ll see.”

The results are published in the science collection, arXiv.