Derby British Science Association

Science and Engineering in Derby and Derbyshire

Up, up and away

If you’re going on holiday this summer, there’s a good chance you will be travelling by aeroplane. If you’re a worried flyer its likely that you’ve considered, long and hard, the science of it staying up there, but have you considered the science of getting on it?

The day we caught the plane…
If you fly regularly you have probably come across several methods for getting on the plane. Unless lucky enough to travel Business First all the time, or get early boarding for accessibility, you have probably met some of the most popular methods of boarding. In mid-range airlines the back to front method, where seated at the furthest end of the plane get on first, and in super budget there is the everybody for himself fight for that window approach. You might not think this activity was ripe for much science, but scientists are nosy folk, and want to know about everything.

A number of researchers have investigated boarding the aeroplane, and how that contributes to the efficiency of getting that it into the sky as soon as possible. Being parked at the airport is an expensive business, so not only is it in your interests as bored passenger to get going, but it’s the airline’s preference too. Israeli researchers Bachmat and Elkin investigated how much more efficient back to front boarding is, compared to random boarding; that is passengers with allocated seats getting on when they like, not an unallocated free for all. They used mathematical modelling to test this out. Modelling is common in many different areas of science, and involves using a computer programmed to create a simplified version of the real world. The benefit of this is that researchers can repeatedly try out the same scenario, with subtle changes, without spending a fortune on paying volunteers. For instance, Bachmat and Elkin calculated all the possible positions in the queue for each customer and then how long it was going to take them to to their allocated seat. They did this for both the random seating method, and the organised back to front boarding, repeatedly. Their model showed that the back to front boarding is more efficient than the random method, but even for the most efficient and well behaved queue it would only be 20% faster.

Astrophysicist Jason Steffan and comedy writer Jon Hotchkiss (yes you read that right, a comedy writer) clearly are chaps who like to get their holidays off to an efficient start. They went to the trouble, and no little expense I imagine, of hiring out a Hollywood studio set of an aeroplane, and 72 pretend holiday makers to work through a series of different seating systems. To make it as realistic as possible the volunteers carried luggage for onboard stowing, and included those most vocal of travellers, small children. They worked through five different boarding methods these included the back to front and random methods used by Bachmat and Elkin, but also incorporated some others. The first is one you are probably familiar with, which is the block boarding system. Where groups of rows board the aeroplane at the same time. The second, the Wilma method, which sadly has nothing to do with The Flintstones, has everyone in the window seats seated first, and all the aisle people last. The last is the Steffan Method, named for well, umm the researcher himself. This last technique is the most complicated and requires people being arranged in a very specific queue. The first person in the queue has the furthest back window seat, person 2 is two seats directly in front, and so forth for every two seats on that side, and then the same on the other side. Continuing in that way for every seat.

The Steffan method turned out to be the fastest taking 3 minutes and 36 seconds to seat each person, followed by Wilma at 4 minutes 13 seconds, whilst random seating took 4 minutes 44 seconds. The other two methods took over six minutes each. These results much like Bachmat and Elkin means the specifically designed method wasn’t that much faster than letting people randomly finding their seats (a little under 25%).

Unfortunately this means that science has yet to get you off to Antigua any faster, but methods of getting planes off the ground and people through gates faster really are being developed as you read. In the meantime though, get to that gate on time, don’t be *that* guy with the oversized hand luggage, and have fun!

Research mentioned
Eitan Bachmat, Michael Elkin, “Bounds on the performance of back-to-front airplane boarding policies” in Operations Research Letters September 2008

Jason H. Steffen, Jon Hotchkiss, “Experimental test of airplane boarding methods” in Journal of Air Transport Management January 2012


About Lotte

Likes making a mess and arguing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 2, 2012 by in General Science, Mathematics and tagged , , , .

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Registered charity no. 212479 and SCO39236

%d bloggers like this: