Looking for a quicker way to board a plane?

The next time you suffer the maddening process of boarding an airplane, here’s something to keep your mind busy.

Jason Steffen, a physicist working at Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics near Chicago, was as fed up as everyone else with the chaotic tedium of passengers who hold up the line while they stuff oversized bags into undersized compartments.

Invariably, someone needs to dig through a bag for a book or a headset. Kids block the aisle while they fight over a window seat. Their parents take time to shed and stow jackets.

Like the rest of us, Steffen thought there had to be a better way. Unlike the rest of us, he actually came up with one after he flew home from a conference in Seattle.

Steffen calculated that airlines could not only spare passengers’ frustration but also slash their tarmac time by altering the boarding order, according to his study published last week in the journal Nature’s online edition.

In his day job, Steffen deploys sophisticated computational techniques to study extra-solar planets, gravitation and dark matter and energy.

He applied one of those techniques — the Markov Chain Monte Carlo optimization algorithm — to the boarding problem. In its simplest form, the algorithm searches arrangements generated by randomly shuffling components for the lowest-energy equilibrium states, Nature said.

Key causes of delay

In his computations, Steffen assumed that the biggest cause of delay comes when passengers block aisles while stowing their luggage and that each passenger needed at least one free space for luggage. He virtually boarded passengers at random, each with a specified seat number, and looked for sequences that filled the plane fastest.

It turned out that the airlines’ conventional strategy, boarding a plane in blocks of rows from back to front, was inefficient. Doing the same from front to back was worst of all.

The trick, Steffen found, was to give each passenger a row or two of space to maneuver bags without bumping into others or waiting for others.

In one efficient scheme, for example, assume you are boarding a plane with 20 rows. Seats A and F in each row are the window seats. The first 10 passengers aboard would be seated in 20F, then 18F followed by 16F and so on to fill the window seats in the even-numbered rows. Next, passengers with window seats in the odd-numbered rows could board. 

Continuing, you would alternate rows to seat passengers with window seats on the other side of the plane. Then you repeat the sequences with the middle and aisle seats.

No line jumping

In Steffen’s perfectly efficient world, every passenger would be assigned a boarding number that corresponded with a ticketed seat. And everyone would follow the rules — no line jumping. Of course, there would have to be exceptions for families travelling with kids.

Passengers could board planes at least four times as fast if airlines made use of Steffen’s findings, his study said.

So far, though, the airlines aren’t rushing to his physics lab for enlightenment, he said in an email interview.

“I’ve had a lot of interest from the passengers of commercial airlines,” he said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had any from the airline companies themselves.”

Maybe that will change. Steffen has submitted his study to the Journal of Air Transport Management where it could draw more notice from airline insiders.

Meanwhile, patience is your best friend as you head down that jetway.

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