What Ants Are Teaching Us About Boarding Airplanes

By studying the insects’ ability to cover ground and avoid obstacles with uncanny efficiency, airlines are learning how to get passengers into their seats—and in the air—quicker.

What Ants Are Teaching Us About Boarding Airplanes

Studying ant colonies’ use of “swarm intelligence” to navigate terrain is informing airline boarding strategies.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

Boarding an airplane can be much faster and more organized; we just need to know where to look for inspiration when it comes to streamlining the process. If you’ve ever battled to simply get to your seat, or waited endlessly while someone attempts to cram a steamer trunk into an overhead bin, you might not be surprised to discover our airplane etiquette “teachers” include none other than honeybees, ant colonies, and even single-cell slime molds.

One of the scientific tricks being used to speed up how we get onto airplanes is called swarm intelligence. This bit of science borrows lessons learned from the animal kingdom, then applies them to help improve overall human efficiency in a variety of situations and workday challenges. The idea that a group is smarter than the individual is studied in a variety of species, including enormous schools of fish and, yes, those icky-sounding slime molds.

Dr. Louis Rosenberg is CEO of Unanimous AI, a company that specializes in translating swarm intelligence to the digital age. In one recent study, a group of 50 average movie fans used a simple web-based tool, moderated by an AI algorithm modeled after the communication behavior of honeybees, to predict the outcome of the 2017 Academy Awards. Rather than a standard poll—which Rosenberg described in a recent TEDx Talk as simply entrenching someone’s preconceived ideas—the group worked as a hive mind to predict Oscar winners. The result was a 76 percent degree of accuracy—notably better than the average professional movie critic’s 64 percent accuracy.

“The idea is that over millions of years, or hundreds of millions of years, nature has evolved optimized methods for enabling populations of organisms to make decisions and take actions in optimized ways, where together they’re smarter than they would be alone,” Rosenberg explains. He says swarm intelligence has been used by airlines to simplify the best way to route cargo and how to find the quickest path for a plane to taxi to a gate. When it comes to applying this thinking to airplane boarding, Rosenberg suggests taking a look at how ants search for food.

“If ants are traveling and they reach a bottleneck, now suddenly that’s no longer the optimal path, so ants will find additional routes. They’re continually using their individual judgement to try to get there as fast as they can,” says Rosenberg. The group will naturally find a more optimal path, then pass this information along to the rest of the colony.

“Nature has evolved optimized methods for enabling populations of organisms to make decisions and take actions in optimized ways, where together they’re smarter than they would be alone.”

With only one or two aisles, an airplane is a bit limited when it comes to detour options. But Rosenberg says keeping our minds ticking, versus blindly zeroing in on one seat, makes better use of our ingrained computing power. “Each one of these people has amazing processing power in their head. We can choose to use this processing power or not.”

Airlines are taking note and updating boarding methods in a variety of ways. “United is actually testing its boarding process right now and soliciting feedback to find a more customer friendly method,” says Maddie King, spokesperson for United Airlines. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the customer experience, and our customers have told us they want a better experience when boarding that includes more communication.”

United is presently testing a leaner boarding process, one that no longer uses five individual rows for five different boarding groups. Once preboarding is complete, boarding begins for Group 1 and Group 2, which have designated lines indicated by a single sign. The remaining groups (3, 4, and 5) are free to remain seated and, once they’re called, board using the line that had been used for Group 2. Unlike some airlines that fill a plane from the rear to the front, United’s general boarding employs what’s known as the “WilMA” method (Window, Middle, Aisle). Customers in window seats board first, followed by middle seat occupants and finally those along the aisle.

By allowing flyers to think a little more on their feet—rather than standing on them for hours—airlines hope to expedite the boarding process and give travelers a less complicated experience. Of course, having too much boarding freedom presents its own perils. That was the case for a number of years with Southwest Airlines.

“When we first began flying in 1971 and until the mid-2000s, boarding positions were given out at the gate and only by first-come, first-served basis. Our customers were known to wait for sometimes longer than our then primarily short-haul flights, just to be among the first onboard,” says Lisa Tiller, a spokesperson for Southwest. “In the mid-2000s, we started studying how we then boarded our airplanes, even asking customers what they liked and didn’t like about flying.”

Tiller explains that open seating wasn’t the major issue; it was the long and arduous line to simply get on the plane: “It was the first qualitative time we learned they overwhelmingly prefer our open seating onboard the aircraft. But we learned they absolutely did not like our boarding process. That revelation led us to test a few scenarios of boarding.” Since October 2007, Southwest’s general boarding process is determined by when a traveler checks in for a flight within a 24-hour window before its scheduled departure. Numbered posts at each gate correspond to boarding groups and these indicate where someone waits to board. Open seating is still used, but waiting ages to have first dibs on a prime seat is no longer necessary.

“We even have an expert in swarm theory on-staff at Southwest, and he modeled various boarding schemes with the goal of finding the fastest way to board, keeping our planes in the air, and our costs as low as possible,” Tiller says.

Rosenberg of Unanimous AI draws parallels with how people board a busy subway during rush hour. Despite the seemingly organized chaos of the entire process, the train boarding regime can be extremely quick. “There’s no assigned seats and a limited amount of time, but I can guarantee there are way more people getting onto a train than any plane, and they do it in a matter of seconds,” Rosenberg says. “They’re even exiting and entering at the same time, which is definitely something you’d never want to do on an airplane.”

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Nick Kurczewski is a freelance journalist covering cars and automotives.
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