The best way to load people into planes

An astrophysicist, fed up with lineups at the boarding gate, crunches the numbers
Richard Warnica
 Hurry up and wait
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

As an astrophysicist at the prestigious Fermilab near Chicago, Jason Steffen probes dark matter and, on a contract for NASA, searches for distant planets. But for years, a less esoteric question has occupied his brain: what’s the fastest way to get passengers onto an airplane? Steffen was on his way to a conference five years ago when he hit a series of delays before he could take his seat. There was a line at the gate, another in the tunnel and a final, awkward, push-past-or-wait period on the plane.

Frustrated, he thought: “There has to be a better way to do this.” The answer, Steffen believes, is a complex system cooked up on his own time in the lab, home to the second-largest particle accelerator in the world. The key for an efficient board is to minimize aisle congestion and maximize passenger speed. To do that, he thinks passengers should line up outside the plane, then board, window seats first, in staggered rows one side at a time from back to the front. Steffen first published his theory in the Journal of Air Transport Management in 2008.

Now he has real-time proof that it works. In June, a TV producer in California rented a sound stage, brought in a fake plane, and tested Steffen’s theory against other methods of loading. Toting carry-on luggage and even some children, 72 volunteers walked on and off the plane, stowing bags and taking assigned seats. Along with Steffen’s approach, the passengers were loaded in four ways: randomly, back to front, in three blocks of seats, and from the window seats in—the so-called window-middle-aisle method, or “Wilma.”

The results, released in late August, were unequivocal. Steffen’s system beat the rest by significant margins. From the time the 72 passengers were told to board until the last one sat down, only three minutes and 40 seconds elapsed using the Steffen method. The only one that came close was the Wilma, which took four minutes and 21 seconds. Back-to-front and block loading took more than six minutes, while random boarding lasted four minutes and 48 seconds. The other methods caused traffic jams at some point in the process, either in the aisle or at the overhead bins. Each bottleneck slowed down the overall time. “What my method does is distribute the passengers all along the length of the aisle,” Steffen says. By staggering the rows, the Steffen system also keeps passengers from causing congestion while they stowed their luggage overhead.

For years, airlines have toyed with ways to cut down boarding times. When WestJet launched in 1996, the company loaded passengers from the back rows forward. Later, it experimented with a modified Wilma, where passengers were loaded from the window seats in. Eventually, the airline settled on the random system. There are faster ways, says spokesman Robert Palmer, but most compromise the guest experience in one way or another. Palmer says WestJet looked at the Steffen method in 2008. Between lining up passengers outside the plane, splitting up groups, and accounting for the inevitable stragglers, executives felt the hassles wouldn’t justify the possible gains. Besides, Palmer says, it’s one thing to be efficient on a sound stage, it’s something else to do it on a real plane.

Steffen stands by his results. If anything, he thinks the efficiencies in his system would work even better on larger planes with more passengers. In late August, he and TV producer Jon Hotchkiss submitted their research to the same journal and expect it will be accepted for publication soon. As for how he got sidetracked from dark matter to aisle seats, Steffen says he did it on a whim. “It was Christmas time, there was no else in the office,” he says. “I figured I may as well be working on this.”