Where millions and millions of passengers saw yet another unpleasant step in the process of air travel, particle physicist Jason Steffen saw a solvable problem. That bumping, convulsing, furtively-cursing line of angry passengers boarding a jetliner could be, Dr. Steffen rather radically hypothesized, eliminated.
Steffen, who works at the government research facility Fermilab, drew up some flow models on his computer and created the "Steffen Method," a staggered boarding process designed to minimize the number of blockages in both the aisle and the rows. This was a few years ago and he got a little press for the experiment, then nothing much came of it. Boarding lines continued to stall and he never saw his staggered process put into action.
Then he got a call from Jon Hotchkiss, the president of Hotchkiss Industries, who was hard at work creating a television program dubbed This vs That exploring what he describes as the "science of things within arm's reach." The former writer for Bill Maher told the physicist he wanted to test his plane boarding theory.
Cut to a few weeks later. Steffen is standing in the Air Hollywood soundstage in Pacoima, Calif. watching 72 people prepare to board a 757, readying to find out if his theory could be applied to the real world.
"There is always the possibility that I overlooked something that would be fatal to the method," Steffen told HuffPost Travel. "After we did the experiment no fatal flaw materialized, so I was quite happy with the results."
The result, summarized: Airlines are going about boarding all wrong. Boarding back to front is slow. Boarding by section is so slow it would be faster if people just pulled a Southwest and boarded at random. Staggered boarding is where it's at.
"The airlines are clearly doing two things wrong," says Hotchkiss. "They are letting their business passengers or frequent fliers board first, which is basically the least efficient thing you can do, and they are charging for luggage, which means people are carrying on over-sized bags and trying to shove them under the seats, which is not efficient at all."
Both men are far from convinced that their experiment will lead to a staggered boarding method being adopted by airlines, but they are both pleased with having found a definitive outcome.
"I was certain that a guy who thinks about astrophysics, if he really put his mind to it, would be able to solve the problem of boarding, which is, let's face it, less complicated than the Universe," says Hotckiss.
To test the researchers' results, try each of the boarding methods below.
Follow This vs That on Twitter to see more everyday experiments, including an investigation of whether you should use the life preserver or your seat as a flotation device if your plane comes to an abrupt, aquatic halt.