If you’ve ever wondered why airlines board flights the way they do, you’re not alone. After waiting to board (and disembark from) one too many flights, University of Illinois astrophysicist Jason Steffen decided there must be a more efficient method, and decided to see if he could find it. His recommendation? The best system would be to space the boarding passengers two rows apart, while filling window seats first, then middle and aisle seats.

It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to realize that most boarding methods are inefficient, as most passengers must block the aisle while stowing their baggage in the overhead compartments. Perhaps even more frustrating is the process of exiting the plane – those stuck in the rear of the plane must wait for everyone on the flight to retrieve their carry-on bags from the overhead bins.

Airline seatsCurrently, the vast majority of airlines board in groups, with first-class and other elite passengers boarding first. From there, some airlines opt to board from the rear to the front, while others fill the window seats, then the aisle. Other airlines (such as Southwest) allow passengers to sit wherever they please – and pay extra for the opportunity to board first.

Some airlines are testing out new boarding methods. For example, American Airlines is allowing passengers without carry-on luggage to board first. United has cut down their boarding groups from seven to five and have added additional boarding lanes to cut down on traffic jams at the gate. According to United’s CEO, this method has already resulted in a 60% decrease in boarding-related departure delays.

The time delay isn’t just frustrating for passengers, it’s also costly to the airlines themselves. Researchers from Northern Illinois University recently found that every minute added at the gate resulted in a $30 increase in costs. It can also result in flight delays and missed connecting flights. In other words, it’s in an airline’s best interest to test better methods.

Do you have any thoughts on how airlines can improve the boarding process? Share with us in the comments section.

Photo credit: camknows (Flickr, Creative Commons)