NPR logo

Plane Truth: Seating Passengers Is a Pain

Only Available in Archive Formats.
Plane Truth: Seating Passengers Is a Pain


Plane Truth: Seating Passengers Is a Pain

Plane Truth: Seating Passengers Is a Pain

Only Available in Archive Formats.

The boarding process frequently delays airline flights. Menkes van den Briel, an Arizona State University researcher, has devised a "reverse pyramid" model to get folks seated more efficiently. He discusses his plan with Madeleine Brand.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Southwest Airlines may abandon its cattle call approach to airplane boarding. Starting next month, it will experiment with assigned seating. Airlines are concerned with how you get on the plane. After all, seconds wasted on the ground add up to lost revenue. You'd think it would be a fairly simple task, but there is a science to it, and there are people who study the best ways to get on a plane. I spoke with one of them. He is Menkes van den Briel, a researcher at Arizona State University.

Mr. MENKES VAN DEN BRIEL (Researcher, Arizona State University): There's back-to-front boarding, which I think everybody is used to that. And then there's the random boarding, which is on the first come, first serve basis. Then there's also pure outside-in, which does the window seats first, then the middle seats, and followed by the aisle seats. And they also have a method, it's called reverse pyramid, which is some type of a hybrid. It mixes the outside-in with the back-to-front.

BRAND: So, it would seem logical that back-to-front would be the fastest, because you fill up the plane from the back to the front. It would seem that that would go the quickest. Why isn't that the quickest?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: Okay. Take back-to-front boarding to the extreme, and just board one row at a time from the back to the front. So now we want to board six people at the same time in one single row. That's actually going to cause a lot of bottlenecks. People will make a queue inside the aisle of the airplane.

BRAND: But with random boarding, what if you have a bunch of people clogging it up at the front of the plane?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: Sure, that will happen. But, there - at least with a random boarding, there is a potential that you're boarding every row. You're boarding all rows at the same time. And obviously, that's not always going to work. Sometimes a person at row one will block the persons that have to go further down the aisle. But on average, you'll be able to board more people in more rows at the same time than a back-to-front approach, where you really try to board only a very small area of the plane.

BRAND: What about just banning the carry-on luggage?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: That's a great idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: But obviously, that's not going to be very practical and not very friendly towards the passengers.

BRAND: But it would be really quick.

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: Sure. But some people want to bring their laptops, some people want to work, and bring their books and folders and stuff.

BRAND: All right, talk to be about this reverse pyramid boarding. You like that one.


BRAND: And again, reverse pyramid boarding is back-to-front, window-to-aisle.

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: Back-to-front mixed with window-middle-aisle, yes.

BRAND: Right. Sounds complicated.

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: Well, actually, reverse pyramid was a solution that came out of a mathematical model.

BRAND: And how many airlines use this?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: As of now, only one.

BRAND: Only one? Which one is that?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: It's America West Airlines, and they merged now, actually, with U.S. Airways. And I believe U.S. Airways will adopt the reverse pyramid strategy as well.

BRAND: So it all adds up to time that could actually squeeze in another flight and more money. Is that right?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: That's certainly one thing, but also, maybe sometimes, just fewer delays. And actually, this is what America West encountered. After implementing the reverse pyramid, they saw that their departure delay actually reduced by, I believe 21 percent.

BRAND: And what's the seconds difference?

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: When we did our studies, the reverse pyramid outperformed the back-to-front by about two minutes.

BRAND: Hmm. Well, thank you very much.

Mr. VAN DER BRIEL: Thank you.

BRAND: Menkes van den Briel is a researcher at Arizona State University.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.