Almost everyone has been there: You rush to the airport only to stand in line and watch your plane board at what feels like a snail’s pace. Yet few people take the time to come up with a better solution and even fewer see their idea tested.
Frustration and luck helped Fermilab astrophysicist Jason Steffen accomplish both.
In 2008, after a particularly blood-boiling wait in an airport, the frequent flier decided to put his skills developing algorithms to track potentially habitable planets and dark matter particles to use developing a computer model to virtually load passengers. After testing several loading patterns, Steffen determined that loading in groups spaced two or three rows apart makes the process much more efficient. The improvement in boarding time depends on the size of the airplane. Spacing out passengers was key to allowing simultaneous depositing of luggage in over-head bins.
Although Steffen was sure his formula worked, it was still just theory on paper that needed flesh and bone testing.
Enter This vs. That, a new science program that uses often quirky experiments to test the merits of everyday choices such as what burns hotter in your grill – natural gas or propane. The show is being distributed internationally by MIPCOM and under discussion for Internet release in the United States. Jon Hotchkiss, producer of the program, came across Steffen’s paper on the Internet shortly after his own molasses-like airplane boarding experience, and a new episode was born.
“As much as This vs. That is entertaining, I also wanted there to be a take away,” Hotchkiss said. “I wanted to provide answers to questions that people have in their daily lives.”
The show flew Steffen to Los Angeles during his vacation earlier this year to test five models of airplane boarding, including Steffen’s preferred method, on a mock 757 airplane in a movie sound stage. Steffen and Hotchkiss measured the plane’s interior to make sure it conformed with the specifications of a real 757. Seventy-two people, and their luggage, were loaded with boarding order and seat number randomized. Steffen was a little taken back at first by the producer’s call but said that, “When someone offers to take you’re theoretical work and test it; you should jump at the chance.”
During the filming, Steffen’s nerves were put to the test by the show’s co-host comedian Marc DeCarlo, who also hosts the Travel Channel’s Taste of America and Windy City LIVE’s man-about-town segments. Steffen wasn’t allowed to know the time it took for each boarding method until the end of the episode and DeCarlo kept implying that Steffen shouldn’t quit his day job.
“I was watching people load and this one girl was slow,” Steffen said. “I kept thinking, ‘Man this last girl is going to make me look bad. Put the bag in the overhead bin already’. But once the time ‘three minutes’ came out of DeCarlo’s mouth, I knew I had it.” Steffen’s method was nearly twice as fast as the nearest competing method.
You can read about Steffen’s method and the sound-stage test in his white paper posted Sunday on the preprint server arXiv.
The first 7 ½ minutes of the This vs. That episode testing Steffen’s method can be viewed here and a few clips of Steffen’s boarding method.
The program’s Twitter feed will announce the U.S. release date of the full one-hour episode , pending a distribution contract.