Getting a plane boarded quickly is important: you, the passenger, get to spend less time stuck on the ground and more time getting to where you need to go when the plane boards quickly. It's also important for cost-sensitive airlines to minimizing turnaround time: the average cost to an airline company for eachminute of time spent at the terminal is roughly $30. Airlines employ various methods to speed up the boarding process: boarding from the rear of the plane first; boarding by pre-assigned "zones", or even doing away with assigned seating altogether (Southwest). But can they do better?
An interesting paper submitted to the Journal of Air Transport Management tries to find out. Using 72 actor "passengers" and a mock single-aisle cabin on a Hollywood soundstage, the investigators timed boardings under the standard methods used by airlines today, plus one new boarding process: the Steffen method:
The Steffen method ... orders the passengers in such a way that adjacent passengers in line are sitting in corresponding seats two rows apart from each other (e.g., 12A, 10A, 8A, 6A, etc.). This method trades a small number of aisle interferences at the front of the cabin, for the beneﬁt of having multiple passengers stowing their luggage simultaneously.
You can see the Steffen Method in action below:
In these tests, the worst-performing method was boarding in blocks (at 6 minutes 54 seconds for these 72 passengers), closely followed by boarding from back to front (6:11). (The authors also claim, but did not test, that boarding from the back to the front of the cabin is nearly as bad as boarding from the front to the back.) Having passengers board in random order and then find their pre-assigned seats did better than either of these methods (4:44): sometimes no structure is better, after all. Boarding windows first, then middle seats, then aisles did give a small improvement (4:11). But the best method overall was this Steffen method, at 3 minutes 36. The benefit seems to come mainly from making it possible for many passengers to stow their bags in parallel. I do wonder how this would work in practice though, especially for larger planes: you'd need to assign 12 distinct boarding zones to passengers (odd windows left, even windows right, even windows left, etc.) which seems like it might discretize the boarding process too much. But given the time and money savings at stake, it's worth more investigation.