News from the world of maths: How to board a plane relatively fast

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

How to board a plane relatively fast

You'd think that boarding a plane is an easy thing to do: get on, find your seat and sit down. But reality is never like that: there's always that woman whose oversized make-up bag doesn't fit into the overhead locker, the business man who has to fold up his jacket with utmost precision and the family of five that try out every possible seating arrangement before settling down. But now some new research, reported in the New Scientist last week, shows that it's not all down to a few annoying individuals. "Enplaning", as airlines call it, really is a complicated business and it takes some complicated maths to model it: Einstein's theory of relativity.

Einstein's theory postulates that time passes differently depending on how you move through space: a person travelling in a space rocket at high speed, for example, will have aged less on his or her return than the people who stayed back on Earth (see Plus article What's so special about special relativity?). The key for airline boarding lies in the behaviour of an object in free-fall: Einstein's theory predicts that it will follow the path that takes longest to travel, where the time is measured from the point of view of the moving object.

Eitan Bachmat and his team from the Ben-Gurion University of Negev in Israel realised that, even though plane passengers usually aren't in free-fall, airline boarding involves maximisation of time in a way that can be modelled by Einstein's theory for free-falling objects. They applied their model not to the usual four-dimensional space (three space dimension and one time dimension) but to a new two-dimensional space based on the passengers' seat allocations and their position in the queue.

Having devised their model, the scientist checked to see if boarding passengers in a certain order, for example those in the last rows first, can make boarding any quicker. What they found is that the "last rows first" technique adopted by many airlines is no better than seating passengers randomly. In fact, getting passengers to queue in a random order is surprisingly efficient. The best option, in terms of boarding time, would be to assign to each passenger a specific place in the queue, but this is rather unrealistic as passengers are unlikely to respond well to such regimental techniques. In practise, the most efficient way of queuing takes into account the order within the rows: getting window seat passengers to board first and isle seat passengers to board last seems to work pretty well. The scientists also found that the time it takes to board a plane is proportional to the square root of the number of passengers.

This is the first application of Einstein's theory outside of physics and, according to Bachmat, one of the first scientific studies of airline boarding. So far, airlines have taken preciously little notice of the scientific studies, rather surprisingly given the great amount of money hinging on turn-around time of planes. But what many people would really like to know is whether the all-out-chaos approach of budget airlines that don't allocate seats is any more efficient than traditional ways of boarding. Unfortunately, Bachmat's model doesn't cover this. It's a whole different dimension.

posted by Plus @ 1:30 PM