Researchers and airlines that obsessed over efficiency have spent the past year worrying about safety too.

Jason Steffen studies planets in other solar systems. His most famous workOK, second-most famous workwas with NASAs Kepler Mission, a survey of planetary systems. But youre more likely to have heard of Steffen, a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, in a very different context: as a student of the airplane boarding process. Years ago, after waiting in yet another line on a jam-packed jetway, the physicist thought to himself, There has to be a better way than this.
Airlines are invested in boarding timesand to a lesser extent, offboardingbecause time equals money. Flying people around the world is a low-margin business, and the faster you can get a flight loaded, into the air, and then emptied on the ground, the faster you can get the next round of paying customers into the air.
In 2008, Steffen published a paper detailing his way, which has become known as the Steffen method. Forget the point-counters in business class. Forget the smug airline-branded credit card wielders with priority boarding. Forget even the first -class passengersthe complimentary champagne can wait. The fastest way to board an airplane, he concluded, is to allow many people to do many boarding tasks at once. Start with the person in the window seat in the last row on the right side. The person in the third-to-last window seat goes next, allowing time to swing items into the overhead bin. Then the person in the fifth-to-last window seat, and so on until the right side fills up. Then the left side. Then the same pattern for middle seats. Then the aisle. Yeah, a little complicated.
Its been over a decade, and maybe it wont surprise you to learn that no airlines have fully gone for the Steffen method. In fact, theres a subgenre of global researchersengineers, physicists, computer scientists, cyberneticists, and economistswho search for more optimal ways to cram crowds onto flying metal tubes. Theyve devised at least 20 methods to get people onto planes. But for many reasonsairline finances, airport infrastructure, technological shortcomingstheir research has mostly fallen on deaf ears. In 2013, the Dutch airline KLM experimented with a modified Steffen method boarding process, but the company later said the trial had no tangible additional benefit.
Now a global pandemic has done the seemingly impossible: shaken up airplane boarding procedures. Along with requiring masks, providing hand sanitizer, and, in some cases, banning passengers from middle seats, many airlines have created boarding and deboarding processes that try to avoid packing flyers too closely together.
Delta, which previously boarded passengers according to ticket classes and mileage club memberships, is loading the airplane back to front, so that flyers dont pass by others as they make their way to their seats. After preboarding families and passengers that need extra time, United is going back-to-front too. Even Southwest, famous for letting passengers choose their seats, is only letting 10 passengers on at a time, instead of the usual 30. The process is certainly slower, but Southwest, and other airlines, have far fewer passengers these days.
Researchers pushing for smarter approaches to getting on airplanes are hoping for more change. Big changes in aviation tend to only happen when people die or get hurt, says Michael Schultz, who studies air transportation at Technische Universität Dresden. The airlines try to learn what’s going wrong, and then they try to improve, he says.
With that in mind, Schultz has been working since last spring with colleagues around the world to identify and simulate the fastestand safestway to get people onto and off airplanes right now. He hopes the pandemic pushes airlines to update their technology, so that theyre able to board passengers dynamically, pushing an alert to a passengers smartphone when it is their turn to board. He thinks a connected aircraft cabin filled with sensors could help crews direct flyers through often-hectic deboardings too.