Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Physicist cuts airplane boarding time in half

I have always been fascinated with the airplane boarding problem.  I wish I was in the airline industry because I would love to tackle this problem.  I used to travel a lot for my job and I would marvel at how inefficient the time  it took to board an airliner.  My first inclination is to redesign the plane (and the airport jetway) to include exits at middle and rear of the plane to go along with the forward exit.  Yet I never put my ideas to paper and tried to calculate efficiency gains.  There have been a lot of ideas try to find the optimal boarding arrangement.  Would you believe that random boarding, i.e. Southwest Airlines, is a more optimal boarding procedure then the current row assignment method?

Yet a physicist from Fermilab, Jason Steffen, did have some interesting ideas to improve the existing airplane boarding procedures.  By using Monte Carlo simulations to measure efficiency and test his ideas he was able to improve airplane boarding by as much as half the time.  From the article, his methods were to using sections of window seats first but alternate aisles so passengers would not interfere with each other.

This is a very clever idea.  Yet I found one flaw that may not have been assumed in his study.  I've noticed that overhead space is a premium for passengers, especially for business travelers.  Business travelers often bring two carry-on bags.  These bags tend to fill up the overhead bins rather quickly.  When the overhead bins fill up then passengers have to search in the aisles looking for available space for their bags.  This creates a bottleneck and queues develop for the other boarding passengers.  It seems to me that Jason's study makes an assumption that all overhead bins would be available at time of boarding.  If in fact alternating rows are used in his model than overhead bins might become filled to capacity before passengers board and create more bottlenecks.  Its just one theory that would be worth investigating before Jason's procedures are implemented.

I applaud Dr. Steffen's studies and finds in the airplane boarding problem.  It is a fascinating problem as most of us have encountered airplane boarding from time to time.  For more information on his methods you can read about Jason's work airplane boarding, which is very fascinating, on his website.