Photo by snady_

No, it’s not about putting all the window-seat passengers in first.

The strategies for getting off an aeroplane are widely published – just check the seat pocket in front of you. That the carefully drawn sequence of actions on the laminated card typically devolves into feral screaming is not the fault of the scientists that decided the number and placement of doors on your plane.

But what about getting onto the aircraft? Is the fastest way of getting everyone on board:

  • To put all the people who have window seats in first?
  • To put the smallest people in first?
  • To put people sitting in the back in first?
  • Scrum like a horde of crazies?
  • Something far more intricate and counterintuitive?

Unsurprisingly, it’s the last option.

What is surprising is that the most bizarre-yet-optimal boarding pattern was calculated by an astrophysicist, Dr Jason Steffen. Who then got to name the method after himself. Because that’s what you get to do when you find ways to optimally board things. And because there clearly aren’t many other opportunities for discovering things at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics where he is employed to presumably calculate other stuff optimally.

The Steffen method is a variant on the window-seats-first strategy of boarding. Which is of course named nothing like that – it’s the Wilma (WIndows, Middle and Aisle) method. No, I have no idea where the L comes from either.

With the Steffen technique, you begin boarding with people that have window seats on the left, then window seats on the right, then middle seats on the left, followed by middle seats on the right. And so on. Check out an overview of the strategy.

So the next time you find yourself at the boarding gate, you can stroll to the front of the queue like a pro, look the hostess straight in the eye and ask:

“So how are we doing this thing? Steffen or Wilma?”