The Sciences

#82: Could Random Airplane Boarding Speed Your Trip?

The quickest way to climb aboard a plane may be the least ordered.

By Stephen OrnesJan 9, 2012 6:00 AM


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Slow airline boarding annoyed Jason Steffen, but rather than complain about it, like most of us would, the Fermilab astrophysicist took to his computer and began writing algorithms to model potential solutions. In 2008 he announced a method that he claimed would cut boarding times in half, but it wasn’t until last year that he finally had the opportunity to test his technique in a realistic setting.

Using a mock Boeing 757 cabin at a Hollywood set, Steffen found that boarding in blocks from the rear—the approach used by most airlines—was one of the slowest ways to get volunteers seated. The fastest method involved filling all the window seats in alternating rows, followed by middle seats, and so on. If that sounds too complicated, his results also turned up a simpler fix: Airlines could slash the time required by almost 30 percent just by allowing passengers to board in no particular order.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants gripes that random boarding creates “complete chaos” in the cabins, but American Airlines, which adopted the approach for international coach passengers in May, reports that it trims 3 to 4 minutes from the usual 20- to 25-minute process. Those time gains, in turn, could translate to greater profits: Steffen calculates that a one-minute reduction in boarding time could earn a major airline $16 million annually by squeezing more flights out of its fleet.

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