Amazing Places

Why Does Boarding an Airplane Take So Long? (There's a Better Way!)

In the (very) long list of airline travel headaches, the boarding process has to be right up there with paying bag-check fees and finding just one freakin' Starbucks, please. (Chicago's Midway Airport doesn't have any. We found out the hard way.) Why does it take so long? There has to be a better way. Well, it turns out that there is — many, in fact. The one thought to be the most efficient was conceived by an astrophysicist, and it's called the Steffen Method.

How It Works

Jason H. Steffen, an astrophysicist at Fermilab, decided to come up with the method when he was in a familiar place — in line, waiting to board. "If the process was efficient," he told the New York Times, "there would be no line." He solved the problem using a computer program called a Markov chain Monte Carlo optimization algorithm, but the important part is the solution: It's most efficient if you board passengers in every other row, back to front, window seat to aisle seat.

For example, let's say you have a 30-row plane. The first passenger to get on would be the one seated in the A window seat of row 30. The next would be the window seat in row 28, then 26, and so forth. Once you hit the front of the plane, you start in the furthest back F window seat, those on the other side. When that's full, the middle seat of row 30, 28, and so forth boards, then the same on the other side, then you move on to the aisle seats. Only when every other row is full do you move on to the odd-numbered rows.

Benefits and Drawbacks

It's that buffer between rows that's the genius part of this system: There's enough room between boarding passengers that nobody would ever have to stop. There's a pretty glaring drawback, though: planes aren't full of solo passengers. Couples and families, often with children, usually want and sometimes need to board together. Unfortunately, most novel boarding methods involve some form of this approach, which makes them impractical in the real world.

According to Thrillist, two airlines may have found the closest thing to a practical solution. One is Southwest, which has open seating. Instead of walking all the way to the seat on your ticket, you take the first seat that looks good to you. Then again, you'll also frequently board the plane to see every aisle and window seat already taken. You and your loved ones will then be scattered in middle seats wherever you can find them.

There might be another reason that Southwest planes board more quickly: It's the last major airline that doesn't charge for bags, meaning, at least in theory, that fewer people are carrying on their suitcases.

The other airline that has a working method is Spirit Airlines. They charge more for carry-on bags than they do for checked bags. That means people won't try carrying on their bags to save money, and the boarding process goes more smoothly. But then you're stuck flying on Spirit, which is only slightly more glamorous than being flung into the air in a cardboard box from a trebuchet. On Spirit, they won't give you water unless you pay for it and the tray tables aren't even big enough to hold a Starbucks cup, provided you found that elusive Starbucks in the first place.

These aren't the only methods out there, however, and perhaps one day, some airline genius will do humanity a favor and solve our boarding woes once and for all. And remember, it makes zero sense to fling off your seatbelt and stand in the aisle for 15 minutes while waiting to deplane, but everyone does it anyway.

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For more insider info about air travel, check out "Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections" by Patrick Smith. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer February 23, 2017

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