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Clarkson professor, student seek to ease airline hassle

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POTSDAM — Airline passengers are used to waiting. Waiting to be allowed on the plane. Waiting for those ahead to find their seats. Waiting to stow their luggage.

However, one Clarkson University professor worked with a student to create a plan to shorten the ordeal that usually surrounds boarding a plane, and it has garnered national attention.

Business professor R. John Milne and undergraduate student Alexander R. Kelly were featured in the Sunday Los Angeles Times for their work.

Mr. Milne is a business professor specializing in operations research, which is the use of math and computer science to make everyday processes more efficient.

“I like to have better ways of doing things, and I hope companies do some of these better ways,” he said.

Mr. Kelly was a student in Mr. Milne’s operations management class. He was interested in the subject, and wanted to apply what he had learned to a real-world problem.

“I enjoyed what we were learning in class, so at the end of the semester I went to his office,” he said.

Mr. Milne considered his student’s proposal. He decided they should team up to tackle an issue he recently had been pondering: the quickest way to board an airplane.

“It’s a pretty easy problem to understand,” he said.

Herding passengers onto an airplane is a long process. Airlines can board only about nine passengers a minute, and every minute on the ground costs the airline about $30.

Mr. Milne’s and Mr. Kelly’s research began in January 2012. It was based on two studies by Chicago astrophysicist Jason H. Steffen. Mr. Steffen devised a system by which passengers were assigned seats, and those closest to the window were seated first, moving from the back of the plane to the front and skipping every other row to avoid crowding, then filling in the remaining rows once the first wave had found its seats.

In theory, Mr. Steffen’s plan is faster than the usual methods, although it has yet to be implemented by airlines. However, Mr. Milne said he thought he could do even better.

“I liked his method, but the one thing he didn’t take into account is the amount of luggage people are taking onto the plane,” Mr. Milne said.

He hypothesized that Mr. Steffen’s strategy could be improved by assigning the window seats to passengers with the most luggage, allowing them to board the plane soonest so they can have a bit of extra time to stow their bags.

Mr. Kelly wrote a computer simulation to test Mr. Milne’s idea, and they discovered that it was indeed 1 to 3 percent faster than Mr. Steffen’s method. While this is a savings of only about 10 seconds, Mr. Milne said, even a small improvement like this could save a large airline about $10 million a year.

Their work was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Air Transport Management, in addition to the L.A. Times.

Mr. Kelly said he was surprised and pleased to see his research receive publicity from a continent away.

“It’s caught me by surprise, and it’s great to get recognition for this type of work,” he said.

The research has changed the way he views air travel, and it helped him discover his passion and apply it toward a career.

“When I get on a plane, I look and see how people are storing their luggage and how it can be improved,” he said.

He will graduate with degrees in computer science and mechanical engineering, and already has accepted a software engineering job with General Electric.

As for Mr. Milne, he said he hopes airlines will consider implementing his method.

“I hope they will apply it. I think there’s an opportunity to speed up the process, which is good for everybody,” he said.

He already has another idea for an airplane boarding method that he wants to test, he said, but his next project will be a system to prioritize deliveries to those who need it most, which he says could be applied in hospitals.

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