All aboard, with a little help from Einstein
James Randerson, science correspondent
Thursday July 27, 2006
As you board your flight, the fabric of space-time is probably the last thing on your mind. But research suggests that by harnessing the maths behind Einstein's theory of relativity, airlines could speed up the arduous process of boarding.
According to New Scientist, which reports the research today, it is the first practical application of Einstein's work outside physics. And the researchers are in talks with a major airline which wants to use their ideas.
Eitan Bachmat and his colleagues at Ben-Gurion University in Israel set up a computer model of their own version of space-time to model the departure hall drudgery. Instead of the usual three space dimensions and one time dimension their departure lounge universe has just two - passengers' row numbers and their places in the boarding queue when it first forms. Each passenger is a point in space-time. They only dealt with the scenario of passengers with assigned seats, not the budget airline "survival of the fittest" approach.
They found that boarding from the back was no better than letting passengers queue at random. The problem is that while the fat lady in seat 80a is hunting for her travel pillow, she is stopping everyone else in the row sitting down.
They are all waiting in the aisle and so blocking rows 79 and 78 as well, and the passengers from those rows are blocking 77 and 76 and so on. In cattle class, boarding from the back just doesn't work because there is not enough room in the aisles to manoeuvre. "Congestion is the major issue," said Dr Bachmat. So what does work? "You could do better by controlling every passenger, but people don't like being bossed around too much."
Surprisingly, perhaps, getting people to queue at random does pretty well, but the best practical option is to board window seats first, followed by middle and aisle. That means there is no need to ask the lanky bloke in the aisle seat to unfold his legs from round his ears and stand up while you sit by the window, for example.
Dr Bachmat now has something to do on boring flights. "Each time I board an aeroplane I watch how people behave."
05.01.2005: Einstein: facts and figures
06.01.2005: Relativity for dummies
04.01.2005: Out of the equation
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