As meeting season has resumed after the holiday break, I’m sure many of you are reading this while stuck in that pit of despair better known as an “airport”, waiting to get on your flight. A recent study showed that letting slower passengers (like those with small children) board the plane first is indeed faster than mixing them in with regular (faster moving) fliers. Essentially, slow movers block the aisle, so it’s better to get them out of the way so traffic is not impeded when the majority of passengers board.

The study is one in a long-running series of attempts by physicists and mathematicians to understand this seemingly intractable problem. Any efficient method is hampered by the economic incentives airlines offer to those willing to spend more to purchase first class seats and to reward frequent fliers. The desire not to split up families or groups traveling together when boarding adds further complications.

The video below offers an entertaining explainer of how this all works, and the conclusion that doing nothing and letting people board randomly would be faster than the systems employed by many airlines.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


5 Thoughts on "Airplane Boarding: The Fastest Way to Get on Your Way"

The basic problem with airline boarding is all of the people who wait until they get to their seats to root through their carry-ons for personal items before placing them in the overhead bins. The result is one aisle blockage after another. Why the airlines can’t make the mental leap to boarding the people at the back of the plane first is unknown.

I love this! It is just the kind of logistics-and-human-interface conundrum that fascinates me. It always does when I fly. Part of the problem, as least on the short-haul routes, is the fact that aeroplane ergonomics did not/do not allow for the excessive amount of “Carry On At No-One’s Convenience” nonsense that goes on. Once, in the past, we stored our luggage in the hold. Now, we carry as much as we can to avoid baggage charges and convince ourselves that we will save time boarding and at arrivals. If it is a one-bag rule, most will try for two, then you get the Duty Frees, the laptop cases, the coats ad infinitum, and the aisle is blocked. Simple solution – stop charging for baggage, airlines! Restrict everyone to the reality of what you really need on a short-haul – a small handbag or briefcase, not endless wheeled suitcases that look like they would never fit in the gauge, and the stuffing and huffing that goes on in the overhead storage bins WHICH WERE NEVER DESIGNED TO HOLD YOUR LUGGAGE! Can you tell how it maddens me? I always play fair, and take one small bag. I always offer to offload into the hold if there is no space. We are all going to depart and arrive at the same time, and it helps no-one (least of all the airlines, whose costs shoot up due to delays) if passengers are fighting in the aisles!

All good in theory and thought but as someone who’s luggage was “lost” the first three times I flew, I ONLY take carry on luggage to insure I actually have clothes to wear at my final destination. Not just a day’s worth of clothes, enough to suffice the length of the stay. I am one efficient packer!

Unlucky! that has never happened to me, but I agree about packing some essentials in the cabin bag.

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