How to speed up plane boarding? Ask an astrophysicist

 Boarding a plane isn’t rocket science, but it may take an astrophysicist to figure out how to make it faster.

“Most of my time is spent studying exoplanets, planets orbiting distant stars,” says Jason Steffen, a research fellow at Northwestern and former NASA scientist.

But one day, while waiting for what seemed like light years to board a flight, Steffen was distracted from thoughts of dark matter and decided to come up with a better strategy to get passengers onto planes.

According to his theory, it would be fastest to board back to front and then window to aisle. And when passengers go on, they should be staggered every other row, thus providing more personal space and preventing those annoying overhead-bin traffic jams in narrow aisles.

“So instead of having one or two people putting their luggage away," he says, "you’ll have 15 people putting their luggage away.”

Airlines have long struggled to make boarding efficient. Delays are expensive, and unhappy passengers may not return. First, airlines assigned seats, then they created boarding zones. Each major airline has its own boarding system, and they usually keep tinkering. United and American recently tweaked their boarding process.

To observe some different strategies, I timed, unscientifically, two different flights.

First, an American flight from New York to Los Angeles. American says carry-on bags are the number one cause of boarding delays, so the airline is now letting passengers with no carry-ons board first. American says its new strategy saves two minutes a flight, and it has thousands of departures a day.

The flight took about 20 minutes to board.

Next, I observed a Southwest flight from Newark to Phoenix. Unlike the American passengers, who crowded the gate until their boarding zones were called, Southwest passengers lined up in the order they checked in. Once onboard, they choose their own seats -- so ideally they could avoid getting stuck in overhead bin traffic.

“Customers don’t have to look for a specific seat. They can sit wherever they choose,” says Chris Rupprecht, Southwest’s station manager at Newark airport. Southwest’s plane was about the same size as American’s and it also took about 20 minutes to board.

Even if airlines perfect boarding, there is still the problem of getting off the plane. Astrophysicist Steffen says when he tested it, his synchronized method of boarding was fastest and it will likely work in reverse too: alternating rows, front to back, aisle to window.

Unfortunately, Steffen says, it’s not likely his method for deplaning would work outside the military, where people are more accustomed to taking orders. In civilian life, when a plane lands passengers want off and they don’t care about rules.

 “And so,” he says, “the airplane is going to de-board, the way that it is, until the sun expands and consumes the Earth.”

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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