Why It Takes So Long to Board an Airplane (And How to Fix It)

Air travel can be fun — and it can be maddening, too. One of the more frustrating aspects is the boarding process, as everyone tries to stow away their carry-on bags and get their bodies into their seats, seemingly all at the same time. The aisles become a mess of errant elbows, teetering bags and the “this space isn’t wide enough for two people” side-shuffle, leaving attendants and passengers alike aggravated.There may be a better way.Most airlines follow a passenger boarding pattern, according to TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru site, which matches the following. First class (and business class, etc.) passengers board first, often followed by families with small children. Then the rest of the passengers board, back-to-front — the idea being that passengers in the rear should board before those in the front, to prevent the latter from clogging the aisle. That’s the process used by 12 of the 17 airlines surveyed, to varying degrees.

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The problem, though? All 12 of those airlines load passengers in waves. The rear-most wave of flyers, for example, may be a group of thirty or more people, all with seat assignments in roughly the same area. You and your in-flight neighbor board at the same time and, as a result, find yourselves bumping into each other as you both put your stuff down, sit down, and wait for takeoff. The fact that you’re after these goals simultaneously and in a cramped space, though, makes that impossible, turning the boarding process into a sadistic version of the hokey pokey. Airlines are sophisticated businesses, though — solving this problem should be doable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, right?

Well, maybe it does. Enter Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at the Fermilab Center for Astrophysics outside of Chicago. Steffen, in his own words, “had been thinking about this problem for two or three years and decided that [he] needed to either satisfy [his] curiosity or forget about it.” He opted for the former. Through his mental field trips, he deduced that the “people standing in the aisle of the airplane are just standing in line” and that “loading back to front just moves the line inside the plane” instead of shuffling the bodies into seats more quickly. By loading the planes the way airlines were, nothing was being accomplished — everyone was still getting in everyone else’s way.

Steffen developed a simulation to try and find a way around this. Wired explains:

He started experimenting with rearranging the line by seat number. He ran his simulation ran over and over, and each time it switched the boarding order of two random passengers: If the plane boarded faster, it kept the switch. If the plane boarded more slowly, it switched them back. Then, the program ran again, switching another random pair. And again. And again. Each time, it moved closer to the optimal boarding order.

Eventually, a pattern emerged — one which loads passengers into the plane back to front, but in a zipper-style formation, as seen in his diagram, below.

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By leaving space around each person as he or she boards, there is less competition for the aisle space and for the overhead bins. And by loading people window-to-aisle, there’s less chance of an already seated person being in the way.

Does it work? Yes — at least in a controlled environment. In 2013, the TV show “This vs. That” took a look at five alternative methods to board a plane, including the Steffen Method. As seen in the video here, the Steffen Method performed very well, beating the competition easily. While the back-to-front method takes about 6 minutes or more to get everyone on board, the Steffen Method takes about half that.

Dr. Steffen believes this time savings could lead to a significant cost savings, but unfortunately, none of the commercial airlines seem to want to adopt it. As Inc. noted, Steffen’s model “may be a little too theoretical for reality” — it requires a strict ordering of each of the passengers (and, during boarding, the temporary separation of groups), something that many travelers may not take kindly to. So for now, be prepared to be frustrated as you make your way to your seating assignment.