Optimizing Airplane Boarding

OK, check out this thought chain. I got an email from United Airlines inviting me to check in online, which I did earlier this morning. As part of the process, I was given the opportunity to change my seat. Unfortunately, the diagram that was offered to me didn’t indicate where the aisle was (United, this is an opportunity to improve your GUI), which is an important consideration when selecting a seat.

I wanted to know where the aisle was, and figured I probably could find the floor plan somewhere online. So I did a Google search for

boeing 767-300 floorplan

and found this paper on optimizing airplane boarding, by a team of students at Cornell’s Center for Applied Mathematics; here is the parent website. Page 10 of the paper has the floor plan of a Boeing 767-300, with the aisles clearly demarcated. (The story seems to be that the students submitted this paper to the 2007 Mathematical Contest in Modeling. The winning papers were published in this issue of the UMAP Journal; maybe United Airlines should read these papers. I bet it was a lot of fun to work on this project, whether or not you won the contest; just seeing how other teams approached the problem would be intriguing.)

I’ve always wondered whether we’re boarding airplanes in the most optimal manner. Given that passengers enter from the front, the standard procedure is to fill seats from back to front; obviously, filling seats from front to back sounds like a bad idea. But why not go a step further, and board the window passengers first and the aisle passengers last, from back to front? I guess the logistics would be too messy.

Some years ago, I was on a domestic flight here in the U.S. in which they boarded passengers from both the front and rear doors, which you’d think would be more efficient. And subjectively (I didn’t time it), boarding did indeed seem to go faster. But I never saw that done again. Maybe it required more attendants to handle two lines, and wasn’t worth the increased manpower cost.

Along similar lines, check out this recent MetaFilter post regarding Braess’ Paradox. Here, the very non-intuitive take-home message is that shutting down certain roads can sometimes improve traffic flow. Don’t you think that’s really interesting?

As for my airplane seat on United Airlines, I usually prefer to be seated next to the window so that people aren’t climbing over me to get to the bathroom. Unfortunately, no window seats remained unclaimed, so I settled for the aisle seat that was already assigned to me. Oh, well. I have printed out the Cornell paper and will read it on the airplane, as a sort of consolation!

Addendum (1/10/09): The Cornell paper confirmed that the standard procedure is to fill seats from back to front, in blocks. It also described several other algorithms for filling seats, including simply filling them at random to more exotic methods such as “Reverse Pyramid”. Window-Middle-Aisle (WMA) did better than random seating. Window-Middle-Aisle with Perfect Ordering (PO-WMA, i.e., WMA from back to front) is optimal; but the authors cautioned that “this method is potentially very difficult to implement,” which is what I suspected. They mention that this paper suggested that a deli-style ticket system might make PO-WMA feasible.

A surprising result from the Cornell study is that the standard procedure, block seating from back to front, actually did worse than random seating! Perhaps it is a compromise; maybe the standard procedure is indeed less efficient than random seating, but maybe it minimizes fights between people jockeying for the front position.

Another interesting thing is that the paper mentions which airline uses which algorithm. They reported that United uses WMA seating, giving this webpage as the reference; here, it’s called “outside-in” rather than “Window-Middle-Aisle,” but it’s the same thing. (Actually, the authors cited a web page at Arizona State University, but that web page is now defunct; apparently, Dr. van den Briel has moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I believe that the URL I have given is the Colorado version of the original Arizona web page.)

Sitting on the airplane reading the Cornell paper, I realized that I hadn’t noticed whether United actually boarded using WMA; my thought chain had been wandering elsewhere. But when coffee was being dispensed, I asked one of the more interactive flight attendants whether United in fact uses WMA. He said that they’re supposed to but the people at the gate counter have ultimate control, and most often they just go with the usual back-to-front by block method. With a mischievous smile, he also invited me to write a letter to the higher-ups at United to complain about it, if I thought it was important enough; maybe he had a beef with the gate counter people!

Dangerous Pizza Dough Machine

Hope they don’t use this dangerous pizza dough machine at Jigsy’s. Hope the little girl is okay.

Reminds me of a short story by Stephen King, entitled The Mangler.

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 1:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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For R.M.B.

Looks like NECCO remains independent. Founded in 1847! The very packaging of the assorted wafers product is very old-fashioned and nostaglic; Mary Jane, too. The Wikipedia entry says that NECCO is the oldest “continuously operating” candy company in the United States, and that in April 2004 the Necco building at 250 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge was occupied by Novartis.

Lemonheads are made by Ferrara-Pan, not NECCO.

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 12:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hershey’s Chocolate Tour

On the ramp leading to the Hershey Chocolate Tour, a picture of a ship named Bonastar II is seen. Here is some online info on that ship. Wonder where that ship is right now. Does it happen to be carrying cocoa beans at this very moment, or something else?

Here are the three cows, Gabby, Harmony, and Olympia. Wonder whether they’re named after three actual cows.

As an aside, the chocolate tour of course brings to mind Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Here’s the Oompa Loompa Song:

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 12:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dr. Lesko, Cancer Researcher

For J.B.

I think you were referring to this Samuel Lesko. Note the association with “Northeast Regional Cancer” in Scranton.

And I think this is the Dr. Bill Heim you had mentioned.

The cancer cluster you mentioned may have been this one; it is said to be in a twenty-mile stretch between Hazleton and Tamaqua.

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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Famous Joes

For Di and Bud.

G.I. Joe, Shoeless Joe Jackson (“Say it ain’t so, Joe”), Trader Joe’s, Sloppy Joe, Joe Blow, Joe Camel, Average Joe. They forgot Joe Schmo, Joe Mama, and Cuppa Joe. 🙂

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 11:04 am  Comments (1)  


For Di and Bud.

Looks like the fear of long words is sesquipedalophobia, sometimes extended to hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia for humorous effect.

Check out the translations on this web page; included are the Braille, Morse Code, sign language, and Pig Latin spellings.

I’m unable to find anything online for “tritrimethylbenzocarbothalene”! I tried several variations on the spelling, but didn’t get anything close enough to be considered a match.

Fear of the number 13 is Triskaidekaphobia. The Wikipedia entry says that the Makati City Hall (Makati is the commercial district in Manila) had “33” as the 13th floor instead of “13”.

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 10:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Jigsby’s, Nathan’s, and Bringing Up Father

For J.B.

OK, I’m sorting through my notes now.

J.B., when we went to Jigsy’s Pizza the other night, you mentioned that there’s a comic strip character with that name. I think you’re referring to a classic comic strip named Bringing Up Father. See also this web page. Looks like there was a movie.

Remember that bar that Bud liked? Here’s its web page. Their motto: Where Everything Tastes Like More.

Published in: on 28 December 2008 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Akashic Records

For E.N.

The term Akashic Records refers to a sort of non-physical (metaphysical?) record of all human knowledge and experience; I guess that since it’s non-physical, some people now call it the Akashic Field, suggesting that it is all around us and permeates the very vacuum of space. It is a very New Age idea. One of America’s most famous psychics, Edgar Cayce (pronounced kay-see), the “Sleeping Prophet”, claimed to be accessing these records when he went into one of his trances. Although the idea of the Akashic Records may have pre-dated Cayce, I think (not 100% sure) he’s the one who introduced the notion to the public at large.

Dan SimmonsHyperion SF series had something like the Akashic Records. In the Hyperion universe, evil artificial intelligences have seduced the human race with the promise of immortality. But this denial of death comes at a cost: it is destroying the non-physical store of human knowledge and experience (if I recall correctly, Simmons doesn’t actually call it “the Akashic Records”, but that’s essentially what it is). Catholics might not like this series, since the RCC has been co opted by the evil artificial intelligences in the story; but I don’t think Mr. Simmons intended this to be an attack on the RCC. The Hyperion series has a lot of Christian allegory, complete with a half-human half-divine savior of the human race, the crucifixion of this savior, and redemption via her blood. It may also be a metaphor for the dangers of subordinating wisdom (human race) to science (evil artificial intelligences). (Reminds me of the very interesting distinction that Dungeons and Dragons makes between Intelligence and Wisdom.)

The topic of the Akashic Records makes me think of the fabled (very most likely fictional) Hall of Records, which is supposed to be a physical store of ancient knowledge buried beneath the Sphinx. Unfortunately, the entrance to the chamber containing the Records is lost, and is now waiting for some adventurous archaeologist to rediscover it. This could be the basis of an Indiana Jones movie. (And lost stores of knowledge reminds me of the Library of Alexandria!)

Sinister Carnivals

For S.F. and I.K. Follow up to the topic of (evil) carnivals, which arose last night over coffee. I forget how our thought chain arrived at this topic; do either of you remember?

I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but my understanding is that it’s about a sinister carnival that comes into town. I’ll put it on my list of things to read.

I mentioned that there’s a Philip K. Dick short story that involves an evil carnival. The short story is entitled A Game Of Unchance, and it’s one of my favorites. Martian colonists are visited by a sinister carny ship that promises to entertain them with “FREAKS, MAGIC, TERRIFYING STUNTS, AND WOMEN”. The (male) colonists are strangely drawn to the show, as if they’re being beckoned by the Song of the Siren. They become entranced, and allow themselves to be swindled by the carny. The story may be an allegorical comment on manipulative advertising, which can cause people to do things contrary to their best interests; e.g., the old lottery tag line, “You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play”, encourages people to bet their money on an outcome with a negative expectation, which (it can be argued) is especially harmful to poor people. You can find this story online via this web page; go to the bottom and click on the link “Show full text: 990,314 characters”. Then search the resulting page for the second occurrence of the word “unchance”; this places you right at the beginning of the story.

There’s also a short story by H.P. Lovecraft entitled The Festival.

And then there’s the Festival of Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky. Yeah, it’s not truly “evil”; it’s a totally different way of organizing a civilization, more like an ecology, or even a living creature (like James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis). But before I read far enough into the novel to find out what it really was, the Festival seemed kind of sinister. They promise to give you anything you like, as long as you entertain them. It sounded fishy to me, too good to be true; there must be a catch somewhere, it must be a Faustian bargain! Maybe I had the PKD short story in mind. Maybe that’s exactly the impression that Stross was hoping to get across; perhaps he has read PKD’s Game of Unchance.

And have you noticed that a lot of carnival music is downright creepy? E.g., check out this YouTube video: Creepy Carnival Music. Or check out this music. Also consider the theme from Gremlins (1984).