The art and science of boarding a plane in a pandemic

Jason Steffen Studies planets in other solar systems. His most famous work – OK, the second most famous work – was with NASA‘s Kepler Mission, a study of planetary systems. But you’re more likely to have heard of Steffen, a professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, in a much different context: as student of the plane boarding process. Years ago, after waiting in another line on a crowded walkway, the physicist thought to himself, “There must be a better way than this.

Airlines companies are invested in boarding times – and to a lesser extent, disembarking – because time is money. Flying people all over the world is a low-margin business, and the faster you can load a flight, in the air, and then dump on the ground, the faster you can fly the next set of paying customers.

In 2008, Steffen published a paper detailing his path, which has come to be known as the Steffen Method. Forget him point counters in business class. Forget about airline-branded credit card holders with priority boarding. Forget even first-class passengers – free champagne can wait. The fastest way to board a plane, he concluded, is to have many people multitask. Start with the person sitting in the window seat in the last row on the right side. The person in the third to the last seat in the window then passes, allowing time to swing the items into the top bin. Then the person occupying the fifth for the last window seat, and so on until the right side fills up. Then the left side. Then the same diagram for the middle seats. Then the driveway. Yeah, a little complicated.

It’s been over a decade, and you might not be surprised to learn that no airline has completely gone for the Steffen Method. In fact, there is a sub-genre of global researchers – engineers, physicists, computer scientists, cyberneticians, and economists – who are looking for more optimal ways to cram crowds onto flying metal tubes. They have developed at least 20 methods of getting people on planes. But for many reasons – airline finances, airport infrastructure, technology shortcomings – their research has mostly fallen on deaf ears. In 2013, the Dutch airline KLM experimented with a boarding process according to the modified Steffen method, but the company said later the trial had no “tangible additional benefit”.

Now a world pandemic did what seems impossible: shake up the procedures for boarding planes. In addition to requiring masks, providing hand sanitizer, and in some cases banning passengers from middle seats, many airlines have created boarding and deplaning processes that attempt to avoid to bring the leaflets too close.

Delta, which previously boarded passengers based on ticket classes and mileage club memberships, loads the plane back-to-front, so travelers don’t pass by others as they make their way to their seats . After pre-boarding families and passengers who need more time, United are also coming back to the fore. Even Southwest, famous for letting passengers choose their seats, only lets on 10 passengers at a time, instead of 30. The process is certainly slower, but Southwest and other airlines have much less passengers these days.

Researchers looking for smarter approaches to getting on planes are hoping for more change. Big changes in aviation tend to only happen when people die or injure themselves, says Michael Schultz, who studies air travel at Technische Universität Dresden. Airlines “try to find out what’s wrong and then they try to improve,” he says.

With this in mind, Schultz has been working since last spring with colleagues around the world to identify and simulate the fastest and safest way get people in and out of planes now. He hopes the pandemic will push airlines to update their technology, so they can dynamically board passengers, by pushing an alert on a passenger’s smartphone when it’s their turn to board. He thinks of a connected airplane cabin filled with sensors could also help crews direct passengers to often hectic landings.

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