Best of 2011 // 85: Can boarding Aircraft at Random increase your trip speed?


Bothered by slow boarding times, Fermilab astrophysicist Jason Steffen took his computers and started to write algorithms to model possible alternatives, rather than complain, as many of us would. In 2008 he announced that he could cut boarding times in half, but he wasn’t able to test his technique in a realistic environment until last year.

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Borrowing an old Hollywood Boeing 757, Steffen discovered that boarding in rear blocks – the strategy most airlines use – was one of the slowest ways of getting volunteer to their seats. The fastest approach was to fill all window seats in alternating rows, then middle seats and followed by aisle seats. If that sounds too complex, he found an easy alternative: by enabling the passenger to board in no specific order, airlines could cut the necessary boarding time by almost 30 percent.

According to The Association of Professional Flight Attendants random boarding creating “complete chaos” in the cabins. American Airlines, however, which adopted theapproach in May, reported cuts of 3 to 4 minutes from the normal 20- to 25-minute process. Such a gain could turn into higher revenues: Steffen estimates that an 1-minute boarding decrease would generate $16 million per year for a significant airline by getting more flights out of their fleet.

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