What Inefficient Airline Boarding Procedures Have To Do With Net Neutrality

from the more-than-you-might-think dept

Search the internet and there are tons of articles about more efficient ways to board airplanes. Many will point to the work of astrophysicist Jason Steffen who algorithmically tested a variety of boarding methods to come up with his optimized version. The best demonstration of this particular method is in this YouTube video where the Steffen method was tested.

The short version is that you board alternate rows at a time, starting with the window seats on one side first, then on the other, then a similar process with middle seats and aisle seats.

What does any of this have to do with net neutrality? Well, Vox.com recently had an article about the Steffen method, along with a variety of other airplane boarding methods, and notes that the way we board airplanes makes absolutely no sense. In fact, the report suggested that (other than Southwest Airlines — which lets passengers just pick their own seat) most airlines pick the absolute worst ways to board, massively increasing the time needed for the boarding process.

So here’s the question: why haven’t airlines adopted these better methods, instead sticking with what are clearly the worst methods? Everyone seems to agree that speeding up turnaround times could save airlines a tremendous amount of money. Steffen himself has estimated that faster turnaround could save the airline industry over a billion dollars. So you’d think they’d do that. But…they don’t. And Vox points out why:

One possible answer is that the current system actually makes them more than they’d save by switching. As Businessweek pointed out, airlines often allow some passengers to pay extra to board early and skip the general unpleasantness. If the entire boarding process was faster to begin with, many people might not pay extra to skip it.

For passengers, though, this makes no sense. Most of us are waiting in line longer than necessary, and those who pay extra are sitting on planes longer than necessary. No one is getting to their destinations any faster, and everyone is paying higher base prices for tickets, because airlines have to pay extra to the crew for their time used during these delayed turnarounds.

In fact, that same BusinessWeek article notes that boarding times are getting much longer over time, and also details how various airlines seem to revel in making the whole process as confusing and annoying as possible — while offering fees to folks who want to “upgrade” to a better experience.

And that, finally, takes us to the net neutrality connection. Broadband providers insist they need to do things like prioritize some traffic in order to deal with network congestion, but that’s bogus. It’s only the non-technical management who makes those claims. Ask the technology guys, and they will quickly say that basic upgrades can easily accommodate all traffic. But the broadband providers are now like the airlines. They could very easily offer a better overall service, but they’re quickly recognizing that by offering a crappy service, they can charge more to get a select few to pay up for a “fast lane” approach. So the incentives are totally screwed up. There’s little incentive for airlines to improve the boarding process, so long as having such a crappy process leads people to pay extra fees to avoid the crappy process.

In the broadband space, it’s even worse, because there’s even less competition, so there are even fewer incentives for the broadband providers to actually do the necessary upgrades. Instead, they have all the incentive in the world to make their broadband connections purposely inefficient, to pressure people into paying more. Is it really any wonder that Netflix streaming quality was so terrible until Netflix suddenly agreed to start paying up.

Just like the airlines, broadband providers have little incentive to actually build what’s best, and plenty of incentive to degrade the general experience.

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Comments on “What Inefficient Airline Boarding Procedures Have To Do With Net Neutrality”

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68 Comments
Violynne (profile) says:

I think what’s funny about the plane boarding issue is that most planes I’ve been on have two doors, one front, and one rear, yet the rear is never used.

Imagine, for a second, how fast boarding would be if both doors were used.

The comparison between netneut and plane boarding was pretty insightful.

Then again, how often do businesses really innovate after they’ve made their billions? Most just take the overage and purposely make it difficult for anyone else to get on top, until years later, they’re no longer companies.

Well, unless some idiotic government steps in and bails them out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

In Australia it is fairly common for passengers for the rear of the plane to have to go down the stairs at the end of the bridge and walk to the back doors (where they board via mobile stairs). That’s just watch by one of the cabin crew, but there’s usually a Fed hanging around at the top of the stairs.

(It was only a few years ago that some of the state capitals introduced jet-bridges for domestic flights.)

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Hmm, funny how “Techdirt” isn’t covering a huge scandal erupting out of Mountain View…

I’m honestly curious what you’re talking about. I had a consulting gig today and have been in a conference room basically the whole day, but am going through and reading news feeds now. I see some stuff about ads in Gmail, but that doesn’t seem like much of a “scandal.”

Feel free to enlighten us. As I’ve pointed out (directly to you) many times, I (1) am not paid by Google and (2) frequently criticize the company when it does things I disagree with.

But, again, feel free to share what the scandal is and I’ll take a look and see if there’s something worth commenting on.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Mike Masnick reads Valleywag before getting out of bed every morning, but sez he’s unaware of the breaking Adsense scandal.

I never read Valleywag, actually. Nearly every time someone has linked me there, it’s been a story where they get nearly all the facts wrong. Again, what’s the scandal? Is it so hard to actually point it out?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Oh wtf. I went and wasted time reading about this. A totally unsourced anonymous rumor that’s already been debunked ( https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7667976) by knowledgeable people. If this were actually true (and, really, stealing chunks at $5,000 a pop?), then it would be ridiculous and I’d be happy to condemn Google for it. But notice that no one else seems to be covering it, because there’s nothing to actually back it up.

We don’t write about unsourced rumors like that about anyone — and there are tons that fly around. If Google is doing this, then I’ll speak up about what a stupid and illegal practice it is. But there’s got to be more proof than that…

Anonymous Coward says:

There's a much better explanation...

…at least for the airlines; it doesn’t hold so much for net neutrality.

You see, airplanes need to land, park, go through post-flight check, refuel, hook up to septic and flush the systems, take out the trash, switch crews, clean the cabin, take on food, do pre-flight check, and then wait for a runway window.

The problem is that humans see an airplane pull up to a terminal, and then after the inbound passengers have disembarked, they immediately want to get on the plane and go. But if they did this, they’d actually end up sitting around waiting the same amount of time that they do now for the plane to take to the runway.

So what the airlines have done is created a system that gives passengers the most variety in their time wasting schedule as possible — because it is much easier to manage waves of queuing passengers than it is to manage an entire plane of seated passengers who are waiting for something to happen.

Me? I always skip the lines by waiting until the last line is almost done before I board. After all, which is better: sitting in a waiting lounge doing whatever I want, or sitting in a cramped seat with people stepping over me and stowing their luggage, unable to get out my laptop, etc. due to all the boarding chaos?

After all, the plane is leaving at a set time; attempting to get on it earlier isn’t going to change that.

As an aside, people who pay more to get on the plane early are complete suckers. That’s like taking a pay cut at work for the right to skip lunchbreak.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

At some point the issue comes down to fraud. The airlines overbook their planes and sell preferred service for extra, inconveniencing many. Cable providers sell certain rates of download and upload speed as ‘up-to’. While these might be achievable at certain times of day and star alignment, what they sold is not what one actually gets.

On cable, each and every one of the folks on my node, all potentially 255 of them, should be able to achieve their as sold speed 100% of the time, even at peak. But that does not happen. There is some algorithm that predicts an optimum number and that is what is provided, and the few or many complaints they get be damned, cause they don’t bother to write them down.

Maybe we could get a stress test. Run both a speed an volume test on all nodes for every trunk to see what is actually up, then hold the provider accountable for their advertisements. Oh, and no more up-to bullshit.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

Fraud is indeed a huge unacknowledged problem; non-enforcement of fraud laws is a HUGE problem, and I think is ultimately behind an awful lot of the dissatisfaction with “capitalism”.

But. There are cases (and Internet access speed is one) where selling access to a resource pool (“up to” some limited rate of consumption) is reasonable.

Suppose it costs $1/Mbps/month to provide Internet service.

Under your “100%” scheme, providing a 100 Mbps service will cost $100/month.

But for $10/month I can provision a 1000 Mbps line to serve 100 houses and offer (no fraud involved):

* 100% of the time you get 10 Mbps or more.
* 90% of the time you get 100 Mbps or more.
* 1% of the time you get 1000 Mbps.

What do you find wrong with that?

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

“10 Mbps” is not realistic if you’re getting 100 Mbps 90% of the time.

I don’t see a problem with advertising a service like that as “up to 100 Mbps”, with the details in the fine print.

There probably ought to be some regulation of what “up to” means in cases like this (I’d say 90% availability would be a reasonable rule.)

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

A: One should NOT have to read the details. The advertisement should be 100% true, or it is a lie. There is no wishy washy middle ground in advertising, or at least there should not be.

B: Who’s discretion as to when you get 10000 or 10? I want my Internet to be responsive to what ever it is that I endeavor to do, right now. If I want to download 485 MB of data for a game, as I did earlier today, then I want it now. And if I get a Skype call during that time frame, there should be NO INTERFERENCE. Now I understand that that might take some network management, if you will, but THEIR goals should be to satisfy the advertisement, not their bank accounts. If they want to feed their bank accounts, doing an excellent job is the way to go.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

One should NOT have to read the details.

Sometimes an offer is not simple. The details have to go somewhere.

If you want X Mbps whenever you want it, 24×7, then fine – go buy a server ISP plan. It will cost 20x more than a shared plan that gives you X Mbps only 90% of the time.

Who’s discretion as to when you get 10000 or 10?

The other users who are sharing your pool of bandwidth, of course. If they’re all using bandwidth at the same time you are, you’ll get less than if you happen to be the only one using it at that instant.

If you want server-level 100% bandwidth on demand, you are going to pay a lot for it. (And that’s fine, if you’re willing to pay.)

But most people would much rather pay far less for a guaranteed X/5 minimum bitrate, and X 90% of the time.

You shouldn’t be telling them they can’t buy that, if that’s what they want.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

You and I are not usual users, most likely. The usual user gets hoodwinked, and that’s OK by you? They should clearly say what they mean, self evident to a hungry, bathroom deprived sixth grader in a hurry at a glance.

They should not change their terms.

They should not exclude constitutional rights ‘because we say so’ in their terms of service, especially not post facto.

They should treat all traffic with respect, regardless of the content or form, and prioritize with urgency going to maybe voice/live video but not to the point that the P2P or other downloads, or general browsing or webemailing are even impacted.

That is all available in 5 mbps. But we buy 10 to make it work. Then, it often doesn’t. You want the general public to buy dedicated ISDN lines when the advertised speed should work, and work just fine. And it does not, not all the time, and sometimes when it is…well critical to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

Here’s what you’re missing. If company A advertises 10 megs for $30 per month and always delivers 100% people will always go to the competition who advertise 20 megs even if they only deliver a small %…. and as long as what is delivered is enough for the average user they don’t care. So there is no incentive to advertise realistic speeds. For people who do care, go pay for a guaranteed bandwidth plan.

BernardoVerda says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

That’s an interesting theory.

Now if we had an actual, genuinely competitive market, in which users could realistically exercise a meaningful degree of choice between ‘Company A’ that delivers the 10 M/sec they promise, or ‘Company B’ which promises 20 M/sec, but rarely actually delivers more than 5 or 6 M/sec, we’d be getting somewhere.

Of course, I’m one of those weird people who uses a 3rd-party DSL provider, because although it may not be as “fast” as the regular cable all my friends use — it’s never as “slow” either…

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

I don’t see a problem with advertising a service like that as “up to 100 Mbps”, with the details in the fine print.

Hmmm dunno how it is the the US, but in the UK “up to…” is usually code for “this is the theoretical maximum speed for the type of line that might be achievable in practice if you live next door to the exchange”

I always figured that honest BB speed advertising would quote the minimum average expected speed along with perhaps the 90% rate you suggest. I.e. “Over 1 billing period (month) your average line speed will not fall below the quoted rate”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Fraud, where are our, ahem, protectors?

I think it would be reasonable to say that companies should advertise the average bandwidth their customers actually get as prominently as their “up to” claim.

To bury the actual speeds you’re buying in fine print while simultaneously loudly proclaiming speeds that customers will rarely, if ever, see counts as fraud in my view.

JWW (profile) says:

I'm confused

Wouldn’t this method of loading a plane give preference to the window packets (err passengers)? Couldn’t the ISP’s say that the window, middle, aisle method is just prioritizing the window packets in the “fast lane”.

And we could take it even farther. If the airlines did this then window seats could demand a premium cost because packets (err passengers) in those seats would get earlier boarding.

Net neutrality is a good thing and I want the Internet to be common carrier, but this example just doesn’t work to argue FOR net neutrality.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: I'm confused

An dumb pipe to the internet would seem to give preference to the closest server, by default giving best speeds to Google, Netflix, and the like who have servers all over the world.

Just because the right way might give what appears to be preference to some doesn’t make it any less the right way.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: I'm confused

“An dumb pipe to the internet would seem to give preference to the closest server”

This is often, but not always, true. To oversimplify a bit, the way it has traditionally worked is that links between nodes are given a “cost” that reflects things like speed, how congested the link is, etc. Routing is (mostly) a “least cost” algorithm. The path a packet takes follows the route that has the lowest “cost” at the moment. This may or may not be the shortest path or the closest server. Also, each discrete packet in a given communication stream may follow a completely different path.

Your comment also reminded me of this old joke. Sing it to the tune of the theme song to “Mr. Ed”:

A host is a host from coast to coast,
and no one makes use of a host that’s close
unless the host that isn’t close
is lagging, down, or dead!

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I'm confused

Yes, I’m aware of this, I was simplifying things as well. Close on the Internet is not the same as close in meat space. This was reinforced when a node went down half way across the country and it cut off access to our mail server three blocks away (fuck you Comcast).

Granted, that might be part of the problem with Net Neutrality. The infrastructure of the Internet in the US is such a cluster-fuck that you could probably take it all down with a single kick in the right place.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

I'm confused

The difference is that sure, one passenger with window-seating gets priority (sorta: she sits down sooner, but she takes off at the same time). But unless your internet parcel is very small (say, a chat message), it is comprised of multiple packets each of which may get window seating or aisle seating. It doesn’t make a difference how fast any part of it gets to you, rather when the last packet does, and the time difference between aisle or window of a single packet is very small.

So the notion, using the boarding procedure (as an allegory for internet dataflow) is that we want to optimize boarding so that we can squeeze more flights into the day and get more passengers / packets through from one place to the next.

What net non-neutrality does is designate some packets as first-class, and then designates some seats for them. Hopefully those first-class seats will be filled by coach-packets when there aren’t enough first-class packets to fill them, but the fear is that the ISPs will leave them empty (essentially throttling coach throughput) in order to encourage first-class sales.

But this allegory being pointed out here isn’t the optimized boarding system per se, it’s about the fact that even though we have a tested optimized system for boarding, the nature of the market and the lack of real competition between airlines has discouraged any of them from employing it, especially if they have motivation to keep boarding unoptimized and stressful so that they can charge for a premium, less stressful experience. The notion here is that ISPs without competition will be the same, providing crappy service as a norm without efforts to optimize because then they can charge extra for less crappy service.

In short, we’ve become used to big companies shitting on us and we suffer their crappy service because there’s no alternative competing service providers to provide better service. If there was a robust market, we could all simply switch to ISPs that committed to fast net-neutral internet.


As of this posting I have not received a US National Security Letter or any classified gag order from an agent of the United States
This post does not contain an encrypted secret message
Thursday, May 01, 2014 9:01:02 PM
spine grasshopper report passport comic tsunami nappy onion

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Queuing Theory

Here is an interesting result of mathematical queuing theory, which I was taught when I took Operations Research (Stochastic Methods) about thirty years ago. There is no such thing as a “just-sufficient” server. If you make the assumption that customers arrive randomly, instead of being marshaled into a lockstep formation, and the second assumption that it takes the server a random time to handle their varying wants, queuing theory says that there are only two stable states: one state in which the server has an average capacity greater than the net load, and the server is therefore practically always idle, and a customer coming along is serviced before the next customer comes along; and another state in which the server’s capacity is less than or equal to the net load, and the server is backed up to infinity. In other words, there is no practical alternative but to build the server fast enough that it spends much of its time twiddling its thumbs. In the case of a switch or router, the switching element has to be built to systematically outrun the bank of modems which represent most of the unit’s cost. This is done as an ordinary matter of routine.

Now in the case of airplanes, you can sometimes create non-random conditions. For example, you can march a body of soldiers aboard, who have been trained to march in step, in close quarters. I suppose the defining example would be paratroops, who are trained to jump out of an airplane with the maximum possible speed, so that they don’t land too far from each other on the ground. I don’t think you could do that with airline passengers, however.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Queuing Theory

In essence, yes. Additionally, as I have previously pointed out, the network center has vast economies of scale. You provision the network center for a worst-case assumption of everyone talking at once, it doesn’t cost too much money, and you don’t have to worry about congestion. When you try to create scarcities, in order to monetize them, they are likely to get out of hand.

vancedecker (profile) says:

Because Anarcho-Capitalism Is Garbage!

Thank You! You’ve proven your own Anarcho-Capitalism drivel to pure drivel, with this one article about how it really works.

Those with money fuck the system for their own short term gains, DESPITE THE FACT THAT IT FUCKS THE SYSTEM FOR EVERYONE INCLUDING THEMSELVES!

If you can’t look at this one simple example, and extrapolate this to the economy as a whole then you’re a hopeless retard incapable of rational thought.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Because Anarcho-Capitalism Is Garbage!

Whose anarcho-capitalism would that be? Mike is a small “l” libertarian who never complains when I call him out to remind him that there’s no such thing as “the free market.” For the most part he understands the need for governance and is a radical of any kind.

He says himself that he doesn’t subscribe to any particular political creed.

vancedecker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Because Anarcho-Capitalism Is Garbage!

That’s nice. People who claim that they don’t subscribe to any political creed or ‘label’ are usually just conversational weasels, who have found that by not allowing any label to be applied, bypass 99% of criticism.

I on the other hand subscribe to reality. If a person is wearing the libertarian shoes, then he is a libertarian. Why promote a damaged philosophy unless you believe in it? Even Ayn Rand, the titular God-Head of the new corporate morality said that there was nothing more vile and dangerous than a nihilist libertarian.

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