The best way to load people into planes

An astrophysicist, fed up with lineups at the boarding gate, crunches the numbers

 Hurry up and wait

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

As an astrophysicist at the prestigious Fermilab near Chicago, Jason Steffen probes dark matter and, on a contract for NASA, searches for distant planets. But for years, a less esoteric question has occupied his brain: what’s the fastest way to get passengers onto an airplane? Steffen was on his way to a conference five years ago when he hit a series of delays before he could take his seat. There was a line at the gate, another in the tunnel and a final, awkward, push-past-or-wait period on the plane.

Frustrated, he thought: “There has to be a better way to do this.” The answer, Steffen believes, is a complex system cooked up on his own time in the lab, home to the second-largest particle accelerator in the world. The key for an efficient board is to minimize aisle congestion and maximize passenger speed. To do that, he thinks passengers should line up outside the plane, then board, window seats first, in staggered rows one side at a time from back to the front. Steffen first published his theory in the Journal of Air Transport Management in 2008.

Now he has real-time proof that it works. In June, a TV producer in California rented a sound stage, brought in a fake plane, and tested Steffen’s theory against other methods of loading. Toting carry-on luggage and even some children, 72 volunteers walked on and off the plane, stowing bags and taking assigned seats. Along with Steffen’s approach, the passengers were loaded in four ways: randomly, back to front, in three blocks of seats, and from the window seats in—the so-called window-middle-aisle method, or “Wilma.”

The results, released in late August, were unequivocal. Steffen’s system beat the rest by significant margins. From the time the 72 passengers were told to board until the last one sat down, only three minutes and 40 seconds elapsed using the Steffen method. The only one that came close was the Wilma, which took four minutes and 21 seconds. Back-to-front and block loading took more than six minutes, while random boarding lasted four minutes and 48 seconds. The other methods caused traffic jams at some point in the process, either in the aisle or at the overhead bins. Each bottleneck slowed down the overall time. “What my method does is distribute the passengers all along the length of the aisle,” Steffen says. By staggering the rows, the Steffen system also keeps passengers from causing congestion while they stowed their luggage overhead.

For years, airlines have toyed with ways to cut down boarding times. When WestJet launched in 1996, the company loaded passengers from the back rows forward. Later, it experimented with a modified Wilma, where passengers were loaded from the window seats in. Eventually, the airline settled on the random system. There are faster ways, says spokesman Robert Palmer, but most compromise the guest experience in one way or another. Palmer says WestJet looked at the Steffen method in 2008. Between lining up passengers outside the plane, splitting up groups, and accounting for the inevitable stragglers, executives felt the hassles wouldn’t justify the possible gains. Besides, Palmer says, it’s one thing to be efficient on a sound stage, it’s something else to do it on a real plane.

Steffen stands by his results. If anything, he thinks the efficiencies in his system would work even better on larger planes with more passengers. In late August, he and TV producer Jon Hotchkiss submitted their research to the same journal and expect it will be accepted for publication soon. As for how he got sidetracked from dark matter to aisle seats, Steffen says he did it on a whim. “It was Christmas time, there was no else in the office,” he says. “I figured I may as well be working on this.”


The best way to load people into planes

  1. Some people would say it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to load people on a plane, but apparently it still helps! LOL

  2. Heh.  A stranger and I came up with a similar idea to WILMA while waiting in the oh-so-familiar fourth line outside the door of a Porter aircraft last month.  “Why can’t we line up in order in the terminal?” was the question that sparked our impromptu non-rocket-science math.

    In case you are wondering, the first line is at the boarding pass/luggage check counter, the second at security, and the third at the terminal counter.  There is often a 2.5th line at the Tim’s beyond security, as well (especially in the morning).

    • No wonder we spend 6% of our lives waiting in line!

      I wonder what it would be without airline travel? LOL


      “…Research suggests that more than half of our lives (on average) is a waste of time.

      * We spend 5 years standing in line.

      * 2 years trying to return telephone calls.

      * 8 months opening direct mail.

      * 6 years eating food.

      * 1 year looking for misplaced objects.

      * 4 years doing general household chores.

      * 25 years sleeping.

      Out of an 80 year life span a total of 43 years are consumed with trivial, boring tasks that seem to occupy the majority of our free time. With another 20 years being consumed by work it leaves little time to the imagination if you don’t have a daily time management system in place…”

  3. I do not doubt that this is the optimal way to board a plane, but I highly doubt that it would work effectively in real life. Generally I find that you can’t get people to adhere to the “back boards first” system. Whenever I am called to board a plane back to front (say row 25 and back), when I am headed to my seat in row 28 I invariably see people already seated somewhere around row 19.

    This problem would be exacerbated in the Steffan system because it would likely split up the boarding of people travelling together (sitting next to each other) – and many of those people, guaranteed, would think that an exception to the system could be made for them.

    Basically, people’s sense that their situation is always an exception will flumox any orderly plane boarding system, which is why I think the random system is best. If you really want to be first on, then by all means line up 45 minutes before boarding. If you recognize that as long as you get there on time everyone gets on the plane, then feel free to arrive at the gate at the boarding call.

    • Yup.

      It would really be fun when the crew tells the mom she has to leave her 3 & 4 year-olds while she boards first.

      Other than than, it might work with kindergarteners, but adults have mostly lost the ability to cooperate at this level.

      • The article states children were included in the trial. So I’d guess some sort of arrangement was made to keep young children and parents together.

        But I really had to laugh at the kindergarten reference. Adults HAVE lost the ability to cooperate at that level!

        The think I hate about getting on to a plane later than most is when my carry-on luggage is stowed 5 seats away…what if I wanted something in there?? I’d have to walk and get it!! :)

    • Everyone demands instant gratification. It is some sort of human or constitutional right. :-/ 
      Anyway, the sooner they can get to the frustration and bitch about the happier they are. ;-)

  4. More behaviour
    control. First we’re subjected to a strip search and now this.

    • Why not combine them.  Show tickets while walking naked through a metal detector as we board the plane.

      • You first! LOL

  5. So the Steffen method saves a couple of minutes boarding the plane. Beforehand we have confusion and protest, and inevitably errors.

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever boarded a plane where everyone’s seated in five minutes.It ain’t broke. Planes load. Do the boarding times significantly affect schedules? 

Sign in to comment.