Skip to main content

Physics provides answer to airplane seat scramble

  • Story Highlights
  • Aircraft boarding times have doubled since the 1970s
  • Astrophysicist has developed method that makes boarding seven times faster
  • Passengers fill window seats first in alternate rows
  • Next Article in World Business »
By Emma Clarke
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Queues ... the endless airport queues are the bane of any frequent flier's life. If they were not bad enough at check-in, security and the boarding gate, when you get to the plane there's more to come as passengers cram bags in lockers, maneuver kids or struggle into window seats.

Boarding times have slowed by 50 percent since 1970 to just nine passengers a minute.

But it need not be this way, says astrophysicist Jason Steffen, based at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Illinois. He has proved that airlines can make boarding times seven times faster by taking a more orderly -- and scientific -- approach.

The inspiration to tackle the problem came to Steffen after a long airport delay. Queuing for the umpteenth time that day, he was determined there was a better way to get passengers on board aircraft than the current method of boarding from the back in blocks.

He used what is known as the Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithm -- or in other words he picked random boarding options, ran them through a software program, keeping the best bits and losing the less efficient, until he found the optimum combination.

The outcome requires passengers to line up in order, the first filling window seats and doing so in alternate rows. So from the back of a 40-row airplane, the first passenger fills 40A, the next 38A, then 36A. The next group then fills the window seats in between, so 39A, 37A and 35a. Once window seats are filled, passengers then go for the middle seats and finally aisle seats.

The advantage, says Steffen, is that by spreading the passengers throughout the airplane instead of concentrating them together, passengers can load their luggage simultaneously. By preventing aisle-blocking caused by people shoving bags in lockers, he believes boarding times could be reduced by a factor of between four and seven.

It sounds promising, but Steffen accepts that engineering such order could be a challenge in real life. After all, the algorithm is usually applied to movement of molecules, not unruly humans.

The first issue is that Steffen's method assumes passengers board alone. He acknowledges that groups and families will slow the system, but not by much, he adds. "The worst thing that happens when groups board is that the system gets randomized. But random boarding is still, according to my model, faster than boarding in blocks from back to the front."

And anyway, he points out, even if airlines do not follow the approach exactly they can still learn from the principle. "The value," says Steffen, "is knowing there is room for improvement."

This is not the first time scientists and engineers have set about solving the aircraft-boarding conundrum. As highlighted in a 1998 Boeing study, boarding times have slowed by 50 percent since 1970. Considering planes only make money when in the air, lowering the time between flights is a priority.

In 2003, America West Airlines worked with Arizona State University to develop a system that speeds the boarding process by reducing interaction between passengers. The system, named the "reverse pyramid," calls for loading an aircraft from back to front and outside in. Window seat passengers at the back board first, and aisle seat passengers at the front are called last.

When America West merged with US Airways in 2005, the policy was implemented throughout the system and reduced boarding times by two to three minutes. And as a spokesperson at US Airways says, the impact of this reduction has been "significant."

Steffen is confident his method gets people on board fastest: twice as fast compared to the Arizona State University approach, he says.

Yet despite the potential benefits, Steffen is realistic. "I'm not particularly hopeful airline companies will be beating on my door. But one thing to come out of this, I hope, will be that the corporate world recognizes that people with a background in physics have the tools to tackle its problems."

For now he has submitted his research to the Journal of Air Transport Management. And until the airlines decide whether or not to come knocking, he says he is looking forward to getting back to studying dark matter and extrasolar planets. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Boeing CompanyAstrophysics

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print