The best way to board an airplane?

From the NY Times: Airlines Are Trying to Cut Boarding Times on Planes.

Boarding time has doubled over the last decades, according to research by Boeing. It now takes 30 to 40 minutes to board about 140 passengers on a domestic flight, up from around 15 minutes in the 1970s.

My obsessed-with-effeciencies mind has spent way too much time in my life thinking about this problem. It always seemed to me like a simple problem to fix. But apparently world-class scientists can’t even offer help.

A few years ago, Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at Fermilab in Chicago, figured there had to be a better way to board after he was held up on the jetway while waiting for a flight to Washington.

Much to his surprise, he found that the common back-to-front method was among the slowest: passengers must wait for those standing before them to stow their bags and sit down. (This explains why he was stuck on the jetway.)

I’m surprised by this came “much to his surprise.” Maybe we don’t need scientists for this after all. The back to front method takes nothing about human behavior in to account. Here’s more from Steffan:

It is far better, it turns out, to let passengers board randomly.

“The lesson I learned comes down to this: you want to spread passengers out and not concentrate them while boarding,” he said. “That’s the moral of the story.”

No, it’s not. That’s only the beginning.

A real solution: Airlines, use your data.

First, you have to realize that everyone sitting in an aisle seat needs to board among the last.
And everyone sitting in a window seat needs to board among the first.

Then take it from there.

So, in practical terms, start with all your single party travelers who have window seats and get those travelers on the jetway first. They will board the plane with lightning speed. Chances are, they are frequent travelers (or at least are self-sufficient travelers) and know what they are doing. These are also the people you want to be behind in the TSA security screening lines.

Once they are through, group all of your two party travelers who have booked adjacent window and middle seats. They will board a little more slowly than the single party window folks but will still be able to get to the seats without having to ask anyone in their row to get up from theirs.

Then, amongst those first two groups, sprinkle in your large groups traveling together. Obviously, a family of four or more will have both windows and aisle seats. They also just paid a lot of money to fly your airline. The key is to make sure the large groups (4+) you let board early are sitting far enough apart from each other on the plane as to not let their shuffling around overlap. Keep their chaos separate from each other.

This all works on one fundamentally simple, but (I suppose) overlooked principle: Once you’re seated, you should not have to get up to let someone in to your row.

Using data they collect from each seat booking, airlines should find the solution to be a relatively simple algorithm based on how many are in a group and where they are sitting. Keep the kids with their parents and so forth but on the whole, board the plane from the window seats in and try to separate the chaos each min-group will generate. Alternate back of the plane, then front of the plane.

In the end, everyone gets a Southwest Airlines-style boarding number and loads in that manner. Southwest’s system works relatively well because it is a random method based on ease. Their planes fill up quickly but then bogs down when all the aisle seat people have to get up and let the unlucky C and D group people in to those middle seats.

One final note- back to the NY Times article, it’s so very wrong to applaud this course of action as a success:

One airline did figure out a way to sharply cut boarding time. Spirit Airlines found that passengers got to their seats much more rapidly once it started charging $20 to $40 per carry-on bag. More passengers checked their bags.

That solution reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s plan to crack down on crime- which is to remove the laws against things like stealing and killing. If there’s no law against it, then it’s not a crime. Problem solved.