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Thursday, 27th July 2006

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The Scotsman Thu 27 Jul 2006
UP AND AWAY: Allowing passengers to pick their...

UP AND AWAY: Allowing passengers to pick their seats in a random manner could cut boarding delays
Picture: Gary Wilson

Getting passengers in their seats is as easy as E>mc2

  • Scientists say theory of relativity can help passengers board a plane
  • E>mc2 has been applied to congestion occuring from pre-booked seats
  • The Israeli scientists say they are now in talks with a 'major airline'

Key quote "I found it surprising. It seems to be under very particular circumstances - this does not generalise easily to other systems, or not at all. It's not some grand theory - as far as I can tell - just a beautiful coincidence." - Dr Bachmat

Story in full EINSTEIN'S theory of general relativity was supposed to help mankind understand the nature of the universe.

Click to learn more...

But in what scientists have described as a "beautiful coincidence", the complex geometry used to describe relativity can also be used for a more mundane problem: getting passengers on board a plane.

While airlines often try to board passengers by seat row, the theory says allowing them to board in a random manner would be quicker.

Now the Israeli scientists behind the research say they are in talks with a "major airline" interested in using their findings.

The scientists realised that when passengers board according to row number, they tend to get in each other's way, causing congestion that leads to long, frustrating queues.

The key factor is to reduce the amount of contact between passengers, which cuts delays to a minimum.

The scientists pointed out that low-cost airlines which do not assign a seat appear to have fewer boarding problems than those which do, perhaps because people will choose a more convenient seat rather than stubbornly waiting for the one they have been allotted.

Dr Eitan Bachmat, of Ben- Gurion University said: "What we suggest is that airlines just don't bother too much with annoying their customers and either board randomly or, if they want to do something, let the window people on, then the middle and then the aisle seats. Playing with the rows seems to be futile."

Dr Bachmat was originally working on a way of ordering information-processing within a computer when a colleague noticed this resembled the way people boarded planes. The team's remarkable finding was that Lorentzian geometry could be used to illustrate passenger congestion.

The complex maths behind Lorentzian geometry is usually used to describe the path of an object through the space-time continuum, which is governed by Einstein's theory of relativity. But a graph plotting this motion mirrors one which describes how passengers who do not get to their seat quickly cause a ripple effect that ultimately delays the time when the last passenger is seated.

"I found it surprising. It seems to be under very particular circumstances - this does not generalise easily to other systems, or not at all," Dr Bachmat said.

"It's not some grand theory - as far as I can tell - just a beautiful coincidence."

Those passengers who want to help reduce the amount of time taken to get on board should keep their distance from other people to reduce congestion, try to take as little luggage as possible and "be disciplined", Dr Bachmat said.

Airlines could also make some changes beyond introducing random boarding, by having first class passengers board with everybody else, he said.

However, a spokesman for British Airways said most people want to book their seat in advance and prefer to know where they are going to be sitting.

Chaos theory gives the green light to abolishing traffic controls and kerb stones

A FREE-FOR-ALL may not sound like the best way to put people on an aircraft, but there are examples where allowing chaos to reign appears to be better than attempts to impose order.

Traffic lights on Carlisle's busiest junction were taken away after it was accidentally discovered that traffic flowed better without them. The council reported "no particularly severe congestion problems" after they were removed.

In London, a study found putting pavements at the same level as the road made things safer for pedestrians.

The lack of a defined kerb appears to have helped persuade 90 per cent of motorists to obey 20mph speed limits on rat-runs where previously about 50 per cent of drivers broke the limit.

Two-thirds of residents said drivers had become more considerate to pedestrians and cyclists.

However, Dr Eitan Bachmat, who studied the way people board planes, said he did not think his theory could help to cut traffic congestion.

"It could in some ways fit if you have one long road and traffic goes in and out of junctions, but I've not been able to persuade myself that this would really give a realistic picture," he said.

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Last updated: 27-Jul-06 01:11 BST

Comments Add your comment

1. peter, china / 3:41am 27 Jul 2006

does this take into consideration carry on baggage

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2. Tom, Edmonton, Alberta Canada / 4:35am 27 Jul 2006

Boarding Aircraft
My personal observation is that the major difficuly is not getting bums in seats, but getting gear in Bins!
People who have physical difficulty in getting their bags stowed overhead often block the aisles for a considerable length of time. as do those who stow them and subsequently decide to add their overcoats, or get their paperback, bottled water, etc., out of the bags after they are first seated.
The low-cost, short-haul flights do not present the same problem, since many of the passengers are regular flyers, are organised, do not need to equip themselves for a 3 or 6 hour flight, and in many cases travel very light.
It seems different strategies need to be employed according to the nature of the flight, and the demographics of its passengers. I would also agree that the prior knowledge of one's seat gives a small margin of "security" to the infrequent flyer which cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps filling up from the rear, along one side, or in the case of a 2-aisle plane, the outer rows, with cabin staff scattered in the temporarily "empty" seats to assist in stowing of bags, and reserving locker space for those "empty" seat passengers might be a good first step.
Worth pursuing, as a cabin full of passengers upset before they are airborne is a recipe for a miserable flight.

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3. Beate, Vilnius / 6:22am 27 Jul 2006

Living above a busy road junction I can confirm this. Whenever the traffic lights fail, drivers are much more considerate and drive more carefully. But it's hell for the pedestrians trying to cross!

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4. john, usa / 6:49am 27 Jul 2006

What a terrible idea! How would we know what seat to set in? No traffic control devices, absurd! How would we know when to stop, or go? To allow people to use common sense, a very dangerous idea indeed! For our on good, we must be controlled, we must be told what to do, and when to do it!

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5. Dave, edinburgh / 7:20am 27 Jul 2006

Why do passengers take so long to board aircraft?
1. Because people carry more handluggage than they can manage personally, the aisles on aircraft are too narrow, because the airports and airlines allow excess baggage in dutyfree shop bags because extra seatrows have been added beyond the manufacturers' intent

Why does chaos theory result in faster loading times ?
Because physics sees collisions as desirable ways of conveying information but we humans prefer to avoid contact. Being polite slows things down. If you let people fight their way on, and the strongest get the best seats, the weak will accept the seats they can get. Like schoolkids on a bus, only the fit will survive. But you can avoid the fat smelly people.

Why do we have pavement kerbs?
1. drainage. It rains. The gutter is by the kerb.
2. To stop moving cars from running into pedestrians and parking on pavements.

We all know why we need traffic lights, even if they do slow traffic down. It's to give the pedestrians a chance.

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6. Robert, Fife / 9:16am 27 Jul 2006

In my experience most delays are caused by passengers trying to get large amounts of luggage into the overhead lockers. Perhaps a reduction of the amount taken, or more enforcement of the actual rules, would also help?

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7. Paul, Edinburgh / 9:44am 27 Jul 2006

Looks like BA could do with a little help from Einstein too before they make their statements. They seem to be confusing random boarding with random seating. The scientists aren't suggesting Easyjet style random seating, passengers would still be assigned a seat but wouldn't have to wait until their row number is called for boarding. Seems to make a lot of sense to me. Although probably going too far suggesting First Class passengers should board with the rest of us normal people!

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8. Nick, Edinburgh / 10:21am 27 Jul 2006

<RANT>Why do stories about Einstein have to have E=mc2 in the title -- this equation is the special theory of relativity not the general, which is what the Lorenzian geometry thing is all about. E=mc2 has nothing to do with this story -- just lazy journalism.</RANT>
In terms of traffic lights I hope that someone on the obsessed with traffic lights Southampton council, where I used to live, reads this -- their opinion was more lights the better which is completely wrong. Mind you Edinburgh council aren't much better. Also, why don't we have more temporary lights in the UK generally, which are used during peak times for traffic flow, but then go to flashing amber to allow people to proceed when safe during off-peak times. Surely this would help cut emissions as there is a lot caused by idling engines at night waiting at red with noone coming the other way.

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9. Ghengis the Physicist, Irvine, Ayrshire / 10:42am 27 Jul 2006

OK, I have to ask. As we all know, E=mc2 and the equation quoted in the article refutes this fact. Surely if the wrong equation were used then more people could find seats than there are seats in the plane.

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10. Ghengis Physics, Irvine, Ayrshire / 10:47am 27 Jul 2006

If E is greater than mc2 then the number of people that can be accommodated in the plane will exceed the number of seats.

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11. Pete, Edinburgh / 11:08am 27 Jul 2006

The Scotsman has really gone downhill since it switched from broadsheet to tabloid format... I wonder why.

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12. james, nz / 11:26am 27 Jul 2006

i fly once or twice a year to australia and i cant say i have ever noticed an undesirably long delay in getting to my seat.i do fly economy

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13. Alex / 11:48am 27 Jul 2006

Comment #4 John

I take it this is tongue in cheek?

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14. Neil, Glasgow / 12:15pm 27 Jul 2006

Another demonstration that the same mathematical rules underlie the entire universe.

Another case where this should apply is in the free economic market. Governments which insist on regulations as to how much money is invested in windmills, whether pubs may allow customers to smoke, or drink from glass glasses, whether Scottish business decisions should be subject to the dictata of political correctness inspectors (official SLD policy incredible as it seems) & all the rest of the nanny paraphanalia is counterproductive.

But then Adam Smith said that some time ago.

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15. William, Lothian / 12:32pm 27 Jul 2006

I do a lot of international travel. If the airlines and airport authorities enforced "their own rules" regarding carry-on baggage, boarding would not be a problem. When I worked in Russia many of the internal flights did not allocate seats. To this day I wish I'd had a video camera with me. It was pantomime at it's best!!

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16. Diana, Edinburgh / 2:05pm 27 Jul 2006

Then you'd get people with kids being unable to find seats together because they wouldn't be able to move as quickly as single adults...

Great idea, if you're leaving in a fantasy world.

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