Particle Physicist Discovers Fastest Way For Airlines To Board Passengers

As a scientist at Fermilab, Dr. Jason Steffen normally thinks about smashing particles together at great speeds. Great energy and speed are not usually associated with the airline boarding process, so it might seem odd that an insight into making how we get on planes would occur to someone who works next to a 3.9 mile particle accelerator. But occur it did, and now the first real-world test of his theory shows that it cuts boarding time in half.

In his method, first, alternate rows on one side of the plane board, but just the window seats. Then the other side boards, in alternate rows with one row between each passenger. Again, window seats only. Then back to the other side, with the middle seats this time. And so on. The result is a beautiful choreography as rows of passengers simultaneously stow their luggage and take their seats in tandem. The video below makes how the system works clear.

The reason why it works is because it makes optimum use of the aisles, allowing each passenger to freely flow from the center aisle, to luggage stow, to their seat. There’s maximum elbow room, and minimum crotch and butt scraping.

Steffen figured out this system after running several simulations with a Monte Carlo optimization algorithm, which Wikipedia informs me is, “especially useful for simulating systems with many coupled degrees of freedom, such as fluids, disordered materials, strongly coupled solids…” Sounds like an accurate description of my last flight to Phoenix.

So how long before we see airlines start to use this? We’ll see. Airlines didn’t care at all when Steffen first published his theory back in 2008, even though that it showed that the current way of boarding was pretty much the slowest possible way you could do it. But now that there’s real-world data to back it up, airlines, which are in dire need of anything to help them save time, might just let this idea take off.

Astrophysicist shows why it takes so long to board a plane [WBEZ]
Optimal boarding method for airline passengers [Journal of Air Transportation Management]
Experimental test of airplane boarding methods (PDF) [Journal of Air Transportation Management]