Shouldn’t we be boarding airplanes back to front? That seems to be a common refrain across the internet and in airports as people struggle to make sense of airlines’ increasingly byzantine boarding processes.
I can’t really address most of the complaints. I don’t know for certain why airlines have parents with small children boarding before Ultra Special MileageMembers and all of those people getting on before you, in seat 27B (though I have my suspicions and they rhyme with honey). But I can say for sure that the way we board planes is not optimal.
A more streamlined method exists, and it’s extremely unlikely to ever be adopted. Why? Because you’d probably hate it.
Here’s what I mean.
The most efficient airplane boarding method
It’s the crossover episode you never knew you wanted. In 2008, astrophysicist Jason Steffen, now an associate professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studied how to make airplane boarding better.
“My interest in this sparked basically out of frustration,” he told me, explaining how standing in multiple lines to get to his seat seemed extremely inefficient. “If boarding was more efficient, the rate they check my ticket would allow me to just walk on and sit down.”
So, Steffen ran a computer model that tested millions of different boarding methods and eventually spit out the best one. It was not at all what he expected.
“When I first did that I thought it was obvious that you should board back to front,” he said. But that wasn’t the answer. It turns out the most efficient method is a highly organized one. First, boarding everyone sitting in odd-numbered row window seats, then even-numbered row window seats, then odd-numbered row middle seats and so on.
And so the Steffen Method was born, and in the 15 years since it was introduced, not one single airline has decided to use it.
Why the Steffen Method isn’t used
Steffen told me he’s not optimistic that any airline will ever adopt his better boarding method.
“It’s not necessarily an easy thing to implement. I wasn’t going for whether it was easy or not, the question I was going for was: what’s the fastest,” he said. “There are some challenges to implementing my method. Everyone has to line up in a specific order. That’s a solvable problem, but it’s a solvable problem that has a cost.”
And let’s be honest: it’s not likely that everyone on your flight would adhere to the rigors of the Steffen Method. Even in the loosely defined boarding groups we have now, people are constantly trying to jockey for position, and on most flights at least a few folks board whenever they feel like it anyway.
Human nature is a big impediment to more efficient boarding – Steffen’s model didn’t account for emotion – and even beyond that, airlines may not want to pay to increase their efficiency in this way, anyway.
Also, with more attention given these days to keeping families together on planes, and advocates pushing for better accommodations for disabled passengers, a rigid, formulaic boarding process may not really be the best thing for actual human travelers.
“Is the cost of solving this problem worth it?” Steffen said. “The cost of implementing the solution is more than the cost of what you save, that’s my guess.”
Plus, he added, even this most efficient method only saves a few minutes on each flight, so it wouldn’t be that noticeable to passengers anyway.
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How airlines can make boarding better
Even as Steffen acknowledged his method is unlikely to ever be widely adopted, he said there are things airlines can do to make boarding faster. Even random boarding, he said, is better than what we’re doing now.
“The easiest one would be to say ‘the airplane is open, OK, everyone get on,’ and that does pretty much as well as anything else,” he said. “Trying to get people in a certain order, all of that actually slows things down.”
He notes that random boarding is not the same as unassigned seating, as Southwest Airlines has been doing for years. In a random boarding procedure, passengers would already have their seat assignments but could get on the plane in any order.
Steffen also said that improvements to cabin engineering are helping the boarding process go more smoothly.
“I noticed that the overhead bins are taller and so rather than sticking your luggage in flat on its back, you stick it in on its side. If you’re sticking it in on its side you can get 50% more luggage in the overhead bins,” he said. “It takes less time for people to put their luggage away, especially at the end of the boarding process because there’s more room.”
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How you can make boarding better
The main thing passengers can do to speed up boarding is to put their carry-on bags away faster. Short of that, however, Steffen said it’s important to remember that flying isn’t so bad in the scheme of things.
“People like to complain about it, but if the alternative is to get into a horse-drawn carriage and ride across the desert, I don’t think people hate it quite as much as they say they do,” he said. “Otherwise, they would just drive, and the fact they don’t drive is an indication that flying isn’t that bad.”
For me, I don’t really care how I get on the plane. I’m just happy to be going somewhere. Although I will admit to being a little aggressive when it comes to securing space for my carry-on luggage. I guess I’m part of the problem.
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why efficient plane boarding isn't better | Cruising Altitude