The Science of Airline Boarding

By Deane Barker on June 20, 2006

Northwest tries first-in-line boarding: You may think this has nothing to do with being a geek, but it’s actually pretty algorithmic. There was a whole article about it in Wired a few months ago — I’m sure some logistical scientists somewhere have spent years on this problem.

Now, passengers on the USA’s No. 5 airline simply line up and take their assigned seats in no particular order.

By shifting to random seating, the carrier has junked the back-to-front boarding system still in wide use in the airline industry. Several airlines have been experimenting with better boarding, and Northwest believes it’s found something it can live with.

That Wired article has a great Flash animation explaining the different methods. In the end, humans are a lot like atoms — we bounce in ways that are fairly predictable in the aggregate.

Is there a name for the science of…”people flow”? Does anyone know? Kind of like ergonomics, maybe?



  1. I’ve thought for years that letting people board at random would be much better than having them do it by rows. When you board by rows, people get all jammed up in one section, trying to find their seats, trying to cram luggage in the overhead compartment, all in one little area. Let the same number of people through at the same rate but let them disperse over a greater area, and things are much more relaxed and they get their stuff done much more efficiently.

    Is there a name for the science of??people flow??

    Don’t know about that, but I learned a new term yesterday that has something to do with people flow; vomitory. “One of the tunnellike passages of an amphitheater or stadium between the seats and the outside wall or passageway.”

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