There are few things more frustrating when traveling by air than waiting patiently for your "zone" to be called at the gate, walking down the jetway like a boss, and then, inexplicably, being met by a sudden and immovable line in the plane's narrow aisle.
"There must be a better way," we have all said under our breaths.
Surprisingly, there is no standard boarding practice in commercial aviation. All the major airlines do their own thing, with back-to-front loading being the most popular.
Some of humanity's brightest minds have tried to solve this problem, including Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist now at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A few years ago, Steffen came up with his own process after he realized that boarding in blocks or zones creates bottlenecks in the aisles, since it forces a group of people to compete and jostle for space and overhead storage in one small section of the airplane.
The Steffen method, as it's been called, spreads passengers out through the plane. As Popular Science described it:
First, passengers sitting in the window seats on one side of the plane all board at once, in alternating rows (row 1, 3, 5, etc.). Then the same is done on the other side of the plane. Then the middle seats, still in alternating rows, boards on the first side of the plane. That continues with the other side's middle seats, then (first one and then the other) aisle seats. Then, do it all again for the even-numbered rows.
The result is that each passenger has plenty of space to maneuver himself and his baggage in the narrow aisle and the plane boards from the outside in.
Makes so much sense, right? Steffen says his method could board a plane at least four times faster than other methods like back-to-front.
There were some objections at the time, however. Steffen's method requires that people be on time and organized for their very specific boarding time, because each groups' window to board is quicker, and passengers would have to be willing to board separately from anyone they may be traveling with.
But both of these objections, Steffen claims, have already been resolved in the industry. "Southwest Air has its passengers line up in the order that they check in," he told The Huffington Post, referring to their ability to organize passengers. "And, having people on the same reservation be adjacent in line should be a trivial adjustment to make."
Still, for some mysterious reason, airlines have eschewed the Steffen method. So, what's the next fastest option? Unfortunately, it's totally random boarding, which customers tend to hate.
According to an episode of MythBusters that timed the most common methods for boarding, totally random boarding without assigned seats (à la Southwest) was by far the fastest. But it was also by far the least pleasant, according to passengers.
The fastest methods with the best customer satisfaction were two variations of the "WilMA" method -- in which all the plane's window seats are boarded first, followed by middle seats then aisle seats -- as well as the "reverse pyramid," in which passengers load from back to front as well as outside in.
According to Seat Guru, a travel site that offers seat maps for various aircraft, no major airlines currently use the reverse pyramid, and only United uses the WilMA method. Almost every other carrier, from Delta to American to Virgin Atlantic, uses the highly inefficient and frustrating back-to-front method.
"It seems that a lot of the boarding process," Steffen told HuffPost, "is more of an exercise in crowd control than it is an attempt at efficiency."
Which begs the question: Are airlines actually trying to make travel more unpleasant? Considering many airlines offer options to pay or qualify for early, stress-free boarding, it seems they're at least trying to make money off of the fact that it currently is.
This piece has been updated to reflect that Steffen is now employed by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.