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Faster airline boarding? It could be in the bag

New research from Clarkson University focuses on carry-on bags as the key to getting passengers onto planes faster. Bonus: it could mean less jockeying for precious overhead space.

The Wright Brothers took a huge step toward solving the problem of man's pesky earthbound nature in 1903. But since then, no one has come up with a fail-safe solution to another persnickety problem related to flight: getting people to board the plane and take their seats quickly and efficiently.

Research carried out at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., aims to change that.

Professor John Milne and engineering student Alexander Kelly want to speed up the boarding process. Clarkson University

Engineering undergraduate Alexander Kelly and School of Business Professor John Milne ran thousands of simulated airline boardings through a computer model to work out the best way to speed the boarding process. They eventually arrived at a method for planes with three seats on either side of the aisle: each row would be filled by one passenger carrying no bags, one with only one bag, and one carrying two bags, thus distributing luggage more evenly throughout the aircraft.

The thought is that if passengers could store their carry-ons in an orderly fashion (rather than with the chaotic Darwinian froth they currently employ while holding up those waiting to board behind them), the entire boarding process would go faster -- up to 3 percent faster.

That might not seem like much, but as reported by The Los Angeles Times, a 2008 study showed that airlines can save $30 per minute in more rapid boarding times, so it's in their best interest to get your seat into one of theirs as quickly as possible.

Milne agrees that even a few seconds saved could save a few (well, many few) dollars. "You add that up over thousands of flights a day over the course of a year; it can really make a difference," he said in a statement. "For instance, a large airline like Delta may be able to save about $10 million a year."

The Clarkson team published its research in this month's issue of the Journal of Air Transport Management.

The pair builds on earlier work by astrophysicist Jason H. Steffen's algorithm, which has passengers boarding in a set order, reducing the aisle traffic jam and potentially saving more than $1 billion for the industry. Steffen set up a model using an algorithm based on the Monte Carlo optimization method used in statistics and mathematics.

Researchers have proposed other methods to speed up boarding, which has actually slowed 50 percent since 1970, according to a report by airline manufacturer Boeing.

In fact, the airline industry is full of faster-boarding schemes that have been tried but for one reason or another failed to get off the ground. Boeing's report postulates that the boarding bog-down has been caused by "increased passenger carry-on luggage, more emphasis on passenger convenience, passenger demographics, and airline service strategies," among other factors.

It remains to be seen whether the Kelly/Milne scheme will be taken up by any airlines and whether it will expedite boarding in the real world (for example, how will families and groups flying together with different bag configurations be handled?).

The new model should, however, produce the happy side effect of reducing man's inhumanity to other man's luggage, in which behemoth bags are crammed into the overhead bins, squashing more modest carry-ons. It should also lessen bruising from the contact sport that begins soon after landing: the mad dash for bags in overhead bins far from seat assignments, which continues to redefine the idea of "friendly skies."