When science meets load management: A new optimized boarding process

Have you ever wondered why airlines board their planes in such strange order or in zones? The thought is that it’s the fastest way to get the passengers onto the plane and seated to ensure the fastest departure. But has anyone really analyzed the process? One scientist at Fermilab in Illinois decided that it was time — Jason Steffen recently ran a Monte Carlo Simulation on the boarding process and published his paper in Nature.

The model basically assumes that the most time taken while boarding is in the process of loading one’s luggage into the overhead compartment. Since you can’t do that when you’re stacked tightly into an aisle or another person from your zone is loading his or her luggage, things slow down. But by boarding groups of people who sit several rows apart from one another, the time it takes to load luggage and sit down is dramatically reduced.

This is contrary to the current belief held by many airlines that boarding by zones from back to front is the fastest. If you think about it, when you get to your row and there are five other people jockeying around their rollaboards, it kind of makes sense, right?

Interestingly, Steffen found that by boarding in a completely random order, the process wasn’t that bad and was even an improvement over boarding from back to front. In that situation the random placement of passengers in the line of people means that there is a higher probability of having space to load your bag when you get to your seat.

Perhaps that’s why Northwest Airlines abolished their method of loading zones a couple of years back and it’s now a complete free-for-all at the gate.

I won’t take up more frontpage space with the details, but if you’d like to read my favorite comment in the ensuing underground discussions, continue on. And don’t forget to read the full journal article here.”In this case, the author apparently considered people as behaving as discrete, random particles. I’m not sure if that would be the best basis of a model, since the motion of individuals in close proximity to each other are affected by the motions of their nearest neighbors. That effect is often modeled as a finite reaction time, or signal speed, among particles (people) modeled as a continuum. Cars on a highway are also modeled that way, with the net result that a the cars behave as a predominantly one-dimensional supersonic compressible fluid, exhibiting analogous behavior to a decrease in flow area (e.g. lanes ending and the flow slowing), increases in in duct area (adding an extra lane which generates in increase in speed), shocks (accidents), expansions (light turning green)… I point this out because an interesting continuum model, motivated by the interesting work by the author of the cited work, may be formulated to further refine and deal with boarding-time predictions based on different schemes.” — UAL Traveler via Flyertalk