While there are lots of strong contenders for most annoying aspect of air travel, boarding is sure to be near the top of everyone's list.
It's slow, cramped, and a great opportunity for your fellow passengers to demonstrate the depths of their obliviousness by clustering around the gate, ignoring instructions, and pawing through their suitcases while others are trying to pass them in the aisles.
Most of us view the frustration as inevitable, but not astrophysicist Jason Hyrum Steffen. "For more than a year," Quartz reports, "he found himself consumed by [the problem], while mowing the lawn or taking a shower. Eventually, in what he describes as 'an act of desperation,' he sat down and solved it."
Thanks to the obsession of Steffen and a handful of other physicists, we now know the optimum method to quickly board a plane. I'm sure you won't be shocked to learn it bears little resemblance to the ways airlines currently manage things.
First, board the slowpokes.
The one thing airlines do get right, according to the work of Steffen and other boarding-obsessed physicists, is allowing those who are likely to need more time to get situated, such as those with mobility issues or small kids, to board first.
Steffen uses the analogy of filling a jar with both rocks and sand to illustrate why this is so. Think of slow-moving passengers as the rocks and quicker boarders as the sand. If you start with the rocks, "you can pour the sand in, and it will fill in all the gaps," he told Quartz.
This is the most agreed upon principle of efficient boarding, with studies from many researchers coming to the same conclusion. "This is a universal result," valid for basically any type of boarding, the authors of one paper on the subject stress. In fact, just letting the slowpokes go first can speed up boarding by 28 percent.
OK, so far, so familiar, but this where and similarities between what you probably experienced on your last trip to the airport and the physicists' research ends.
Ditch groups for waves.
On most flights, after slower passengers board, the airline calls everyone else in groups, starting with the back of the plane and moving forward. This sounds sensible, but research shows this method is actually slower than if they just opened the doors and let everyone rush on in a free-for-all.
That approach doesn't sound too pleasant though, which is why it's nice that Steffen's work identified a better way than either the groups method or the stampede method. As Quartz explains, it involves boarding passengers in waves,
with the first passengers called to board seated in window seats two rows apart--first 30A, then 28A, then 26A, and so on. Next, the same for the other side of the plane (30F, 28F, 26F). The process continues with odd-row window seats on either side, middle seats, and finally, aisle seats. Each person can sit down within moments of one another without getting in anyone's way.
Would it work in real life?
Hold up, frequent flyers might object. There's no way the public at the airports I visit could handle such a highly choreographed routine. People miss gate calls, ignore instructions, and generally mill around like confused herd animals.
I hear you, but the physicists assure skeptics that the approach has been tested in real-world trials and found to make boarding almost twice as fast as the usual approach, even factoring in the inevitable cluelessness of some passengers. One U.K. airport even tested a similar method last year, with the results yet to be announced.
If all went well with the British trial, maybe airlines over on this side of the pond will consider listening to science and make one of the most annoying aspects of flying a little less nerve shattering.
Do you think this approach has a snowball's chance in Hades of working at the airports you frequent?