Weird Science: Optimal Boarding Methods

The Editorial Board of Beerkens’ Blog decided it’s time for a new regular item. Under this new item, I’ll now and then report on a peculiar, remarkable, eccentric, extraordinary, unconventional, atypical, strange, funny, odd or bizarre study. In other words: a case of Weird Science. Here’s the first one.

wsOptimal boarding method for airline passengers

by Jason H. Steffen 

Full Text Available in Arxiv / Physics & Society [PDF]

The problem

Several passenger boarding schemes are used by the airline industry in effort to quickly load passengers and their luggage onto the airplane. Since the passenger boarding time often takes longer than refueling and restocking the airplane its reduction could constitute a significant savings to a particular carrier, especially for airplanes which make several trips in a day.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that boarding from the front to the back is the worst case but that boarding from the back to the front is optimal or nearly so. Indeed, this is the strategy that is often employed, boarding passengers in blocks from the rear of the plane to the front. In this case, conventional wisdom only provides an answer that is half right. The worst  boarding method is, indeed, to board the plane from front to back. As this study shows, however, boarding the airplane from the back to the front is very likely the second worst method.

The Findings

By boarding passengers in a manner that allows several passengers to load their luggage simultaneously the boarding time can be dramatically reduced. This result contradicts conventional wisdom and practice that loads passengers from the back of the airplane to the front. Indeed, it shows that loading from the back to the front is little different from the worst case of loading from the front to the back. The goal of an optimized boarding strategy should focus on spreading the passengers throughout the length of the airplane instead of concentrating them in a particular portion of the cabin.

By boarding in groups where passengers whose seats are separated by a particular number of rows, by boarding from the windows to the aisle, or by allowing passengers to board in random order one can reduce the time to board by better than half of the worst case and by a significant amount over conventional back-to-front blocks—which, while better than the worst case performed worse than all other block loading schemes. The primary drawbacks for any of these methods is likely to be psychological instead of practical. Groups of passengers who wish to board together would be an issue to investigate from both a customer satisfaction point of view and as a component in a more detailed model.

If a workable method to have passengers line up in an assigned order could be found—and it likely may be employed already, then there is the potential for a substantial savings in time. Such a savings would most likely benefit flights between nearby cities where a particular airplane would make several trips in a given day since it might allow one or two additional flights. Or, it might allow an airline to reduce the number of gates that it requires to meet its obligations since each gate would be cleared more rapidly.

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