The Plane Truth: Boarding by Rows Is the Worst Possible Way, Says Physicist

By Joseph Castro | August 29, 2011 3:17 pm

Let’s face it: boarding an airplane with luggage is just downright frustrating. Not only do you have to puzzle out how you are going to wrestle your carry-on bag into the aircraft’s tiny overhead compartment, but you have to do it while trying not to get swept away by the tugging current of other passengers.

“OK, everybody count off!”
Courtesy of Steffen, arXiv

But surely not all boarding procedures are created equal—simply boarding the plane back to front would be the easiest and most efficient method, right? Wrong. In fact, boarding by sequential rows is the worst possible approach (pdf), according to a new study by physicist Jason Steffen of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics.

Steffen tested the efficiency of several different boarding procedures by sending 72 luggage-toting passengers into a movie-set Boeing 757. Among the boarding techniques tested was the zone/block style, where passengers fill the plane back to front, one large group at a time; WilMA, or Window, Middle, then Aisle (how the “l” got where it did is a mystery); and Steffen’s own procedure (imaginatively called “the Steffen method”), which incorporates both the other two techniques (see chart).

Steffen timed how long it took the passengers to fill the plane under the different boarding procedures and found that the block style takes the longest, falling well behind the uber-sophisticated “random boarding” method—letting everyone on at the same time. The Steffen method was the quickest because it maximized the number of people who could use the aisle concurrently without crashing into each other.

So, Steffen argues, if airline companies started implementing his method, they could save money by shortening the amount of time the planes have spend in the terminal. But can you imagine how long it would take to get people to line up in the correct order in the first place?

Reference: J. Steffen and J. Hotchkiss. Experimental test of airplane boarding methods. arXiv:1108.5211v1

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