Have you ever boarded a plane in a nonchaotic way? I haven’t. Considering people have been flying for decades, one would think that a more efficient way of boarding planes has been figured out by now. Well, it has, but the putting in practice proves to be a little challenging.
1. The most efficient way to board a plane
Boarding a plane from back to front might intuitively sound like the best option. Passengers take up the last rows first so that people can continuously walk on the aircraft without stumbling on passengers getting set in the first rows. While it might seem like a good idea, it turns out it is just as inefficient as boarding from front to back, which is the worst possible method.
Random boarding, what most airlines are doing, is about 20% more efficient than block boarding and is currently the best method in terms of speed and practicality that airlines have at their disposal. Studies have shown it is even faster than boarding window passengers first, then middle then aisle, a method called WILMA.
However, Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, decided in 2008 that random boarding wasn’t good enough and set out to find the truly best possible scenario. Using computer modelling tools and a specialised algorithm randomly changing the order passengers get on a plane, he discovered the most efficient order people should be boarding a plane is a variation of WILMA.
His research showed that what has become known as the Steffen boarding method is about 50% faster than front to back or back to front boarding and 30% faster than random boarding. It involves passengers with a window seat in an odd number row boarding first, then those with a window seat on an even number row, then odd number middle seats and so on. Skipping every other row in between boarding blocks allows enough time for all passengers to put away their luggage and get into their seats until the following group gets on the plane.
While this is the ideal, mathematical scenario, putting it in practice is not very realistic. Firstly, it assumes that all passengers will be at the gate, queued up in the exact order they are supposed to get on the plane. Then, it does not allow people travelling together to board at the same time, for example families with children, or school groups. So Hassan Zeineddine, a supply chain researcher at the American University in Dubai, built on Steffen’s method to find out a more practical solution.
His “dynamically optimized” boarding (DOB) strategy takes into account groups of people travelling and thus boarding together while still offering “near optimum performance”. The DOB stipulates that an algorithm sorts out the boarding order as soon as the last check-in is made. Passengers receive a notification thorough an app telling them their place in the boarding queue. Groups of people travelling together are boarded first, then, according to their seats, smaller groups and individual passengers. Zeineddine’s simulations proved to be only 5% less efficient than Steffen’s, while taking into account the human factor.
It’s basically ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’.Hassan Zeineddine, supply chain researcher at American University in Dubai
Considering the lowest airport costs, an average boarding time reduction of 1 minute would lead to cost savings of more than 50 million dollars per year for a major airline, a 2015 study found. So why don’t airlines update their boarding strategies to save up millions in airport costs?
On the one hand, updating boarding methos would require massive logistical upgrades at all the airports an airline operates at, which, according to Zeineddine, they are not willing to invest in. It might seem counterintuitive to refuse to make a one-time investment that would save a lot more in the long run, but, on the other hand, if boarding becomes a smooth process for everyone, passengers will no longer have the incentive to buy extras like priority boarding or even first and business class.