MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You might not think it would take an astrophysicist to figure out the most efficient way to get passengers onto an airplane, but then again, maybe you haven't met Jason Steffen.
He hangs in scientific hat at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics and joins us from DeKalb, Illinois. And, Mr. Steffen, I know this isn't your usual line of work, what made you get started working on boarding airplanes?
Mr. JASON STEFFEN (Astrophysicist, Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics): A bit of frustration was the initial starting point. I was boarding an airplane to go to a conference and felt that there had to be a more efficient way to get everyone onto the airplane because it was taking so long.
BLOCK: So you sat down at your computer and what'd you do?
Mr. STEFFEN: The first thing I did was I needed to come up with a way to model boarding passengers onto an airplane and then took into account personal space and where the seats were located and where the passengers were standing in line. And then once I had that working, it's not very difficult to implement some kind of optimization algorithm to kind of wrap around that initial structure. In fact, the Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithm that I used is actually much harder to pronounce than it is to implement.
BLOCK: That's a great name.
Mr. STEFFEN: The algorithm itself, while it makes you sound smart to say it, is actually a very simple algorithm. You make random changes and then you see if the airplane boards faster and if it boards faster then you keep what you have and you keep making small random changes until, ultimately, it converges to the fastest method.
BLOCK: Well, let's cut to the chase here. What is, as you've discovered, the most efficient way to board an aircraft?
Mr. STEFFEN: Well, in perfect world where you can get the passengers to do exactly what you'd like them to do, the most efficient way to board passengers onto an aircraft will be to have adjacent passengers in line, separated by two rows. So that if you send 12 people into the airplane, they would be spread apart by two rows so that they can all put their luggage away at the same time and they can all sit down at the same time.
BLOCK: Does it matter where in those rows they're sitting?
Mr. STEFFEN: It's most efficient to have the people at the windows board first than it is to have the people, for example, in the aisle board first. But I think that's less important than having multiple people putting their stuff away at the same time.
BLOCK: So you would have people lining up. You would board the person sitting in a window seat stay in the aisle 36 and then the window seat in aisle 34, 32, 30 - all the way up to the front of the plane, and then do the same thing on the other side, back to front?
Mr. STEFFEN: Yes. That would be the optimum way to board people onto an airplane.
BLOCK: So in practice, it wouldn't take into account, say, families that want to board together, somebody with a kid, maybe somebody with an older relative that need to board together, those would all really gum up the works.
Mr. STEFFEN: It would gum up a little bit. But even with small random changes, the worse that happens is that the whole boarding process becomes randomized. And, actually, sending in people randomly into the airplane board significantly faster than sending people from the back to the front.
BLOCK: Really? Just send them any which way and it will be faster?
Mr. STEFFEN: Yes.
BLOCK: And it sounds like if you really want to cut down on boarding time, the best thing to do would be to keep people from bringing so many bags on the planes.
Mr. STEFFEN: That would certainly cut down on the amount of time that it takes to get people seated. And I, myself, especially when I travel with my kids, am part of the problem there with having all the stuff that you have to carry on with you and put away. But I don't think that's something that you can really avoid unless you just forbid it right out.
BLOCK: So you're part of the problem, but you think maybe you have the solution here, too.
Mr. STEFFEN: Yeah, I think that more time could be saved by implementing what I'm suggesting than would be saved by myself, personally, not bringing as much carry-on luggage.
BLOCK: Okay. Well, Jason Steffen, thanks so much. Good to talk to you.
Mr. STEFFEN: Thank you for your interest.
BLOCK: Jason Steffen is a fellow at Fermilab. He submitted his paper, "Optimal Boarding Method for Airline Passengers," to the Journal of Air Transport Management.
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