Airplanes

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

Excited for the August 21 eclipse? Visit our Eclipse 2017 page to explore the science, history, and myths of the event. The Curiosity team will be viewing the eclipse alongside NASA in Carbondale, Illinois. Follow us on Facebook for live videos, trivia, and interviews on the big day.

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.

Related: Why Airplane Windows Don't Line Up With The Seats

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.

Related: Is Airplane Turbulence Truly Dangerous?

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.

Related: Airplane Oxygen Masks Make Their Own Oxygen

According to Thrillist, two airlines may have found the closest to a perfect 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. (Of course, there might be another reason that Southwest planes board more quickly: "It could just be Southwest is 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. 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.

Is there something you're curious about? Send us a note or email us at editors (at) curiosity.com. And follow Curiosity on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Air Travel

The Better Way To Board An Airplane

Share the knowledge!

The Mythbusters Test The Best Plane Boarding Plan

8 Awesome Travel Hacks

If you liked this you'll love our podcast! Check it out on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music, SoundCloud, search 'curiosity' on your favorite podcast app or add the RSS Feed URL.

Advertisement