If you’re braving the “friendly,” crowded skies this holiday season, brace yourself for the inevitably glacial pace of the boarding process.

The boarding methods of most commercial airlines are not quite the gold standard of efficiency.

So, what’s the fastest way to get in your seat? I mean, come on, we’re not exactly talking rocket science here.

As it turns out, it’s actually a fairly complicated puzzle to decipher: a  intricate enough problem to tantalize the likes of an astrophysicist.

Courtesy of Vox
Courtesy of Vox.com

After enduring one too many maddeningly slow boarding experiences, Jason Steffen a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, began digging into the unexpectedly complicated mechanics of efficiently ushering passengers onto planes.

In 2008, Steffen created a computer simulation to evaluate existing boarding methods and ultimately design what he claims is the most efficient option for getting restless passengers into their seats. The results were published several years ago in the Journal of Air Transport Management (summarized here).

In his research, Steffen identified the two most common factors responsible for slowing the boarding process to a painful crawl:

1. Passengers typically  have to wait in the aisle for those ahead of them to stow luggage.

2. Those already seated in aisle or middle seats have to get up and move back into the aisle to let passengers behind them take the seats closer to the window.

In fact, the most routine boarding process — from back to front — is actually the slowest of them all, Steffen’s argues, It’s even less efficient  than boarding a plane in a completely random order.

Steffen claims that his proposed method, which minimizes the former issue and eliminates the latter, could significantly reduce boarding times, thus cutting down on overall door-to-door flight lengths, and ultimately saving airlines hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The news site Vox recently explored this question and created the above video analyzing various standard boarding methods. The videos below show individual simulations of these different boarding processes, listed from worst (slowest) to best (fastest).

Think you have a better idea? Let us know in the comment section below.

Here’s to safe, relatively painless and highly efficient travels!

5. The dreaded back-to-front method

4. The random method

3. The outside-in method

2. The best current option: Southwest’s self-selection method

No video simulation for this one, but the basic gist is that Southwest doesn’t assign seats. Instead, passengers get on the plane in the order they check in and can sit in which ever seats are available. This method has proven to be the most efficient one currently used because passengers have more freedom to sit where they want and spend less time waiting in the aisle.

1. And finally, the winner (in theory, at least): The Steffen method

Steffen’s method is closest to the the outside-in method, with one major difference: rather than having all window seat passengers board first, it creates a choreographed boarding sequence that eliminates any waiting in the aisle by having passengers board in a staggered format. Take a look:

Looking for the Fastest Way to Board a Plane? Go Ask An Astrophysicist 3 January,2018Matthew Green

  • mike rubes

    Doesn’t look like Steffens method takes into account how passengers in row 3 aisle won’t have any room to stow luggage?

  • Tara M. DeSousa

    First come first serve is sensible and efficient .


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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