The best way to board an airplane

at 10:12 AM ET, 08/30/2011

Just about every major airline is experimenting with how to make boarding faster. American Airlines settled this summer on a random boarding order after two years of studies.

Continental will be soon begin boarding by seat position: first window seats, then middle, then aisle, the Wall Street Journal reported last month. Virgin and Jet Blue are experimenting with other tactics to speed up the process.

An astrophysicist in Illinois says he has done all these airlines one better.

In a forthcoming paper, Jason Steffen of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics, argues that the fastest way to board a plane is to have passengers line up beforehand in a very specific order. In Steffen’s chart (at right), passengers who will be seated far apart board the plane around the same time.

Trials were run on a mock Boeing 757 parked on a California sound stage. It took 72 passengers 3 minutes and 36 seconds to board a 12-row plane using this technique.

This method proved much faster than traditional boarding procedures, such as back-to-front (6 minutes, 11 seconds) or getting on the plane in groups (6 minutes, 54 seconds). It also moved faster than the random method that airlines are now gravitating toward by just over a minute.

There are a few practical challenges with this method, particularly getting people into the line in the first place, as well as boarding a family with small children. But the economic incentives to get this right are big: Every minute a plane spends at a terminal costs $30, according to a recent study. Steffen estimates that if airlines implemented his boarding method they could save $110 million annually, netting the industry an extra $1 billion in total.

 
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