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Slow Airplane Boarding Solved by Astro-Physicist and TV Producer

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It hardly seems possible, but airline travel in 2012 is conspicuously worse than 2011. On-time arrivals by the 15 major domestic airlines is down 12% compared to Winter 2011 - 85% vs 76% - according to the Department of Transportation.

Even worse, flying has been so dismal for so long, comedians have run out observations about air travel to make jokes about.

Plus, the DOT adds that twice as many flights were cancelled by the airlines thus far in 2012 compared to 2011.

Year after year, passenger's number one complaint is... delays. Passengers loathe being stuck in the terminal, can't bear the seemingly interminable time it takes to board the plane, and they abhor being stuck on the tarmac.

Passengers also get pissed off if the flight attendant grabs their nut bag. You know, before they finish eating all the nuts inside.

However -- thanks to Jason Steffen, an astro-physicist from the Fermi Lab in Chicago, and my new TV series, This vs That, there's finally a solution to one problem in particular.

The boarding process.

So, why does it take so long to board a plane? Here's the top five reasons:

1. Airlines board 1st class passengers first... These passengers clog the aisle preventing those sitting in coach from getting by and getting seated.
2. Passengers who are seated on the aisles often board before people sitting in window seats... resulting in the aisle passenger having to get up so the window passenger can sit. This "changing places" takes time.
3. Passengers who are seated in the front section of economy often board before the people sitting behind them... Thus, preventing people from getting by and getting seated.
4. At any given time, only one person from any given row can occupy the aisle space to put luggage in the overhead bin. This clogs the aisle, slows the stowing of baggage, and slows seating.
5. Thanks to the law of unintended consequences, the airlines have incentivized passengers to pack unwieldy carry on bags because of the fees they charge for stowed luggage. These bags are harder to carry and tougher to jam into the overhead bin.

Any new procedure that expects to reduce boarding time must have one crucial component. It must increase the simultaneous use of the entire aisle space. Meaning, there can't be log jams in the front or back... there can't be people standing in the aisle not putting away luggage once they reach their seat... and, people can't just be standing in the aisle waiting to get past the person in front of them.

Before Dr. Steffen's seating method was tested, five other boarding methods were tested first. The tests took place on board a mock 757 fuselage inside a Hollywood sound stage with 100 extras playing the parts of airline passengers.

The tested methods were...

1. Boarding front to back.
2. Boarding back to front.
3. Boarding in groups (the back 6 rows, followed by the middle 6 rows, followed by the front six rows, for example)
4. Boarding passengers in widow seats first, followed by middle seats followed by aisle seats.
5. Boarding passengers randomly.
6. Boarding using the Steffen Method.

Without giving away the entirety of the experiment's results, I'm comfortable saying that the best method was twice as fast as the worse... and that boarding passengers randomly was actually faster than boarding them in order from front to back.

So, how did Dr. Steffen's method do compared to the other boarding methods? To find out more, click here.

Finally, it's useful to know why the airlines refuse to change their current and very slow boarding systems. Would you be shocked to know the answer comes down to money? Yeah, I didn't think so.

You see, the airlines cater to their first class passengers who pay much more for their tickets than do the passengers in steerage and the airline is convinced that 1st class passengers (and business class, and Star Alliance partners, and the members of their Admiral's club, etc) want to board first, so they won't do anything that will upset these valuable customers.


Jon Hotchkiss is the creator of This vs That, a new investigative series that uses the cold facts of science, dynamic experiments, remarkable demonstrations and the unadulterated truth to reveal the answers to life's most common and vexing dilemmas. No bias. No bullshit. Just science, fact and funny. Facebook.com/thisvsthatshow