By Ed Muzio
A friend reports her small local grocery with one entrance and three aisles has implemented one-way aisles in response to COVID-19, presumably to improve traffic flow. Now I haven’t seen schematics, but a basic understanding of odd numbers tells me that unless one aisle is twice as wide as the others, this attempt to smooth things out is destined to end in a clog of frustrated shoppers.
But let’s take a break from COVID-19 and harken back to a simpler time when many of us jumped on commercial aircraft with impunity – not out of nostalgia, but to help us think more rationally about the utility of arrows pasted to floors. Did you know that significant calories have been spent by researchers on what’s called “The Aircraft Boarding Problem”?
If you don’t believe me, do a quick Google Scholar search on the term. You’ll find a long list, including:
- This paper full of equations and tables that defines two primary impediments to boarding: seat interference (“I can’t jump over the person sitting in my row”) and aisle interference ( “I can’t jump over the person standing in my way”)
- This study in which the authors recommend that “airline managers should consider issues related to evenly distributing boarding activity throughout the aircraft” – whatever that means
- This recent investigation into applying machine learning to the problem (thankfully without employing the Boston Dynamics dog to move passengers along)
It’s true: for decades, intelligent people have been working on the issue with little success. If you are – uh, were – a frequent traveler like me, you know this. Over the years you’ve experienced various back-to-front, outside-in, and VIP-to-plebian boarding sequences, all inflicted upon you to speed things along. And you’ve likely arrived at the same conclusion most researchers have: no approach is better, and they’re all slow.
Except one. As it turns out, one airline has demonstrated faster boarding year after year. While academics and consultants were guzzling coffee hard at work on the question of the fastest way to direct people to board, Southwest Airlines laughed and implemented their famous (or infamous) open seating routine. Southwest tells a line of passengers to “hurry up and get on the plane or we’ll be late,” then lets them figure the rest out for themselves. It feels socially awkward. It seems logistically clumsy. But every day, for a couple of decades, in airports across the US, groups of random strangers have done a better job sorting out boarding in real time than academics and consultants could muster with simulators and numerical methods. How? Because they were equipped and then allowed to create group intelligence.
As an engineer who likes processes, that sort of bugs me. But as a guy who focuses on getting executive and senior management teams to run functional organizations, I’m not surprised. Group intelligence is real, and an “organization” is just a group of people (ahem) organized by leadership and management to create results too complex to be accomplished alone. Those desired outcomes may be …read more
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