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New Research Suggests We’re All Boarding Wrong

New Research Suggests We’re All Boarding Wrong
Jennifer Billock

Do you remember the Steffen Method of boarding a plane? In 2011, Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist, and professor of physics and astronomy, discovered that the most efficient way of boarding was when passengers boarded the plane in waves.

“Adjacent passengers in line will be seated two rows apart from each other,” Steffen wrote for The Conversation in 2014. “The first wave of passengers would be, in order, 30A, 28A, 26A, 24A, and so on, starting from the back.”

Turns out, there’s a new detailed a better way to board.


Using Geometry, Not the Usual Order to Calculate Boarding Speed

This new study—by Sveinung Erland from Western Norway University and two co-authors from Latvia and Israel—used Lorentzian geometry to determine boarding order. This geometry is the basis of Einstein’s theory of relativity, replacing particles with passengers and defines a passenger who is likely to slow down boarding in broader terms than just passengers with babies or those with disabilities.

While slower passengers, which must include families, the elderly, and those with heavy baggage should board first to speed up boarding, faster boarders (those with minimal baggage, those sitting alone, etc) should be sprinkled in in a specific order–lest they become slow passengers.

“The ability of a passenger to delay other passengers depends on their queue positions and row designations,” say the authors of the study: in other words, passengers who are sitting close together should be standing further apart in line in order to avoid slowing each other down by blocking a row, forcing another passenger to wait.

When passengers board this way, rojections showed it’s 28% faster than any other boarding method…including the Steffen Method. “This is a universal result,” the authors wrote in their study. Obviously, all these methods are simplified and can’t take into consideration unpredictable human behavior. But Steffen says the studies are still useful.

“It gives you a quantifiable result to consider when crafting policy,” he told Ars Technica. “And it’s counter-intuitive information, which makes it even more valuable because it shows where your intuition can lead you astray.”

View Comments (8)


  1. diver858

    January 28, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    WOW – ANOTHER Southwest puff piece – full of their marketing propaganda?

    I will attempt to address just one of the major false claims:
    Southwest avoided bankruptcy during the 2007 recession for one reason – it won the fuel hedging lottery. When fuel costs went through the roof for the rest of the industry, demand for air travel dropped, they were forced to cut back on flights, down-gauge livery, AA’s labor unions forced them in to bankruptcy. Southwest was able to fill much of the void, particularly in markets like intra-California, where it is now facing competition from Alaska.

  2. chongcao

    January 29, 2020 at 3:02 am

    This ignores people travelling by group that wish to boarding together. Also it ignores the fact that many people never listens to the announcement and follow the rules. So the end result is that it looks good in theory, but in reality, it would depend on whether the airline can enforce the boarding order and whether the passenger understand and follow the orders.

  3. jvankirk

    January 29, 2020 at 5:25 am

    Delta’s companion ticket benefit on their credit card needs to be more open. I can hardly ever get acceptable date.

  4. PapaJack

    January 29, 2020 at 5:46 am

    On a wide body plane in Asia last year, they used two different doors to board each aisle, so Rows A, B, C, D when in (and out) one door, while Rows E, F, G, and H went the other door. Very effective. Don’t know if that could be brought to the US though.

  5. strickerj

    January 29, 2020 at 9:19 am

    Wait, I’m confused. This study says, contrary to the one 9 years ago, that the boarding process we use now is actually the fastest… and yet the headline reads “New Research Suggests We’re All Boarding Wrong”.

  6. jonsail

    January 29, 2020 at 11:15 am

    First airlines would have to give up dividing passengers into different status groups for boarding. They have a lot invested in that. For me, though, the only advantage of early boarding is to be sure to get overhead bin space next to my seat.

    Second, getting pax to cooperate would be like herding cats. Just consider getting off the plane. Some people grab their stuff out of overhead as soon as the plane stops. Others wait until everyone ahead of them has gotten off and then get up and rummage around the overhead bin to get their luggage while everyone piles up behind them.

  7. lebelgo

    January 29, 2020 at 11:41 am

    This study ignores a couple of important facts. (1) Airlines board in the order of best/most loyal customer to least dedicated customer, with the purpose of ensuring that the best customers get the coveted limited overhead space. The boarding order is NOT designed to make the process the most efficient. (2) The proposed boarding method would separate families while boarding, including some families with young children, so it’s not practical.

  8. mvoight

    February 13, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    Why reward people with bigger luggage with the ability to board first and hog the luggage bins???
    And, the report also wants to board families with small kids first. Again, more stuff for the luggage bins.

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