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New tests confirm secret to faster airline boarding times

If you've ever crumpled into your plane seat a bitter, sweaty mess after the chaos of boarding, you'll want to know about this: A new study has found there is a better method airlines could use to board passengers.

Pretty much all researchers on the topic agree that the most common way of boarding passengers – from the back of the plane, forward – is the worst. One better idea is to board people in window seats first, then middle seats, followed by aisle seats. This seemingly elegant solution, called the Wilma method, has been shown to bump efficiency by 40 per cent, according to the BBC.

A newer approach, called the Steffen method, appears to improve upon those results. It uses the window-middle-aisle strategy, but alternates rows, resulting in nearly double the boarding speed when tested by computer simulation. Having fewer people using the same physical space appears to be the key.

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Recently, TV producer Jon Hotchkiss asked the Steffen method researcher, Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, to put all these methods to the test in real life.

They used a mock-up of a 757 airplane in Hollywood and 72 luggage-toting volunteers, according to the BBC.

They timed the passengers five different ways, including boarding from the back in both blocks of rows and single rows, a completely random method, and the Wilma and the Steffen methods. (Each group included pre-boarding for families.)

"Block" boarding was the worst, clocking in at almost seven minutes.

Random boarding fared much better than both back-to-front methods, "presumably because it randomly avoids space conflicts," reports the BBC. The Steffen method was fastest, at about 3.5 minutes.

Dr. Steffen said that the results generally mirrored his computer simulations, and he told the BBC he hopes that commercial airlines will take an interest.

"I haven't received a phone call yet, but the day is young, so maybe that will change," he said.

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(Here's hoping someone will study how much people with too much carry-on luggage throw a wrench in the works.)

Does boarding a plane routinely frustrate you? Does this newer method appeal to you?

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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