As much as travelers hate waiting around at airports, the airlines themselves have plenty of incentive to get passengers onto the runway by the quickest means possible. Flight delays, for instance, can end up costing a company an additional $16 million dollars each year, according to a recent study.
That's enough of a loss for airlines like Continental to start implementing new boarding measures to help reduce the number of delays and improve turn-around time. Now, Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at Fermi National Laboratory (Fermilab), has devised a strategy for seating passengers that cuts boarding time in half. Based on a mathematical formula, the procedure's efficiency was demonstrated on an online video show called "This vs. That."
His approach, appropriately dubbed the Geffen method, is similar to the Wilma method where passengers are seated in waves in three, beginning with the column of seats next to the windows, then the middle column, then the isle seats.
There are a couple key differences, however. Instead of doing it by intervals, the passengers are lined up in a predetermined order depending on their assigned seats. The passengers with window seats will still be seated first, but in alternating rows starting with the seats located at the back of the aircraft and progressing towards the front. Doing it this way helps cut down on isle congestion as travelers look for their seats and stash luggage in the overhead bins.
Besides the Wilma method, Geffen's seating plan of attack was also pitted against three others that included seating people from the back to the front, randomly and by blocks, a strategy used by most airlines where each group of passengers are given a turn to seat themselves according to which section of the plane their seats are located. Here are the timed results of the test:
"Block" boarding (six minutes and fifty-four seconds)
Back-to-front (six minutes and eleven seconds)
Random (four minutes and forty-four seconds)
Wilma method (four minutes and thirteen seconds)
Steffen method (three minutes and thirty six seconds)
Carrying out a real-life test proved to be important because although he had already successfully tested his theory using computer simulations, modeling actual human behavior based on mathematical algorithms don't always pan out.
"As far as the actual amount of time it took to fill the plane, the times didn't agree - because I didn't know how long it took people to put their luggage away and walk down the aisle," Geffen told BBC News.
"The basic conclusions I drew were realized; the method I proposed did the best, and the other ones landed where I would've predicted," he added.
As far as saving airlines millions of dollars, Geffen says he's stilling waiting for that all-important phone call. So in the meantime, as long as there are still atoms needing to be smashed, he'll be keeping busy.