I haven’t been on a vacation in 10 years. Part of the reason, admittedly, is I’m a workaholic. The other part is I hate flying. I despise the lines, the cramped seats, the security – all of it feels like a giant waste of time.
Usually, I keep these feelings to myself. (Who needs to hear me complain more than I already do?)
But then I read a statistic that sort of blew my mind. Despite all the incessant coverage about air travel, pre-pandemic polling showed that a majority of Americans don’t fly every year. Now, even fewer people fly.
Some of them probably hate to fly like me. This got me thinking – is there a better way to travel?
I decided to explore solutions in the latest episode of my podcast, “Margins of Error.”
I started by looking at the way we board an airplane. We spend so much time doing it. Most airlines use something called block boarding, which means boarding front to back or back to front. There is also the window, middle, aisle method. Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, reportedly has the fastest boarding process of any major airline by allowing people to claim the first available seat.
It turns out, however, that there is a faster way. It’s called the Steffen Method, named after its creator, Jason Steffen, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas physics professor.
He came up with a model that accounts for how and where we stow our baggage when finding a seat.
“You want adjacent passengers in line to have their seat assignments spread all throughout the airplane so that when one person comes to stop at their row, the next person behind them is able to stop at their row,” Steffen said. “In this case, it was two rows away.”
By having people two rows away, “both of them could put their luggage away at the same time without getting in each other’s way, and they could sit down at the same time.”
This method can cut the boarding time by nearly half, Steffen contends.
Why don’t we just start using the Steffen Method? It does require strict quality control. Steffen also said airlines have so many priority boarding groups based on status that these interfere with his model.
Maybe one day the airlines will change.
And maybe airplanes aren’t your thing. You want to hit the open air in a car and enjoy the countryside?
If so, there is a statistical model for you here, too.
I spoke with computer scientist Randy Olson who, along with science writer Tracy Staedter, created the algorithmically verified “ultimate road trip across America.”
Let’s say you have 50 locations that you want to visit because you really want to see the United States. “There are three times 10 to the 64 possible ways to arrange those 50 destinations,” Olson told me. “If you tried to have your computer find the optimal route by trying every one, it would take about “9.64 times 10 to the 52 years.”
That is a lot of time – more than I can type here – and not really useful.
The key is to use randomness and route optimization, Olson told me, which means swapping two of the destinations and measuring the new road trip. “Is it shorter? If yes, keep it, if not throw it out and just keep trying, trying, trying,” he said. “It takes only a few minutes on my MacBook to find the optimal driving route.”
If you really blitzed through the whole ultimate road trip, you probably could knock it out in a couple of weeks. But Olson recommends giving it a month or two to take in the sights.
Here’s one leg of the trip: You drive north from the Grand Canyon, up through Utah and Idaho, before arriving at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Then you lurch back south, through Colorado and New Mexico, until you get to the Alamo in Texas.
Of course, driving is all well and good. But what about the cost of fuel? Not to mention its environmental impact, which plagues planes as well.
The answer to these issues may in part end up being … kelp. Yes, the stuff that grows in the ocean. Diane Kim, a senior scientist at the University of Southern California Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, has been studying the potential of kelp as fuel.
Kelp is “one of the fastest-growing organisms on the planet,” Kim said. “Under ideal conditions, you’re talking about growth rates of over 1 foot per day. And so you can generate a ton of biomass, which you need to convert into bioenergy.”
The early results of kelp experiments are promising, though using kelp as a major energy source won’t happen for a while. And even if we were able to use kelp, it’s just part of the solution.
Kelp could be “about a third of our energy consumption in the United States,” Kim said. “You would need a lot of kelp, and you would take up a lot of ocean space, but there is a lot of open ocean space. When you compare it to fossil fuels, I mean, it’s a much better alternative.”
If finding the ultimate way to travel is your thing, you should listen to this episode. You’ll find out what happened when we put out a call for people who love bus travel. It turns out they aren’t easy to find.