Rowan team uses math to solve airline woes

Rowan team uses math to solve airline woes

Boarding an airplane can be a lesson in frustration.

Passengers jam into the aisles, stopping suddenly to stuff their baggage in the overhead compartment while the line backs up behind them.

Is there a better way?

Maybe, say three math students at Rowan University who recently won an award for most creative solution to an airline boarding problem in the annual international Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

This is no small accomplishment. The online contest lured about 1,000 teams from 12 countries. The nine teams honored for their approach to the airline problem included Duke University, National University of Singapore, and the Peking University School of Mathematical Sciences.

The Rowan team of Matthew Oster, of Upper Township, Cape May County, Joshua Dunn, of East Greenwich Township, and Walter Jacob, of Harrison Township, created a simulation model in which they had passengers board different-sized planes in different ways and then calculated how long it would take in each scenario.

Oster, who started as an art major, has already been accepted into an operations research Ph.D. program at Rutgers, where he hopes to continue showing the creative side of numbers.

"Math is the foundation of everything," he said."This is a real issue for airlines," said Professor Christopher Lacke, who teaches operations research at Rowan. "They pay for the gates, and if they can get planes out of the gates faster, they can get more planes in the air."

The teams had just four days to develop their proposals. They spent time doing research on how airlines board planes now. Then, they created their own simulations, adding in such factors as how fast people walk.

"We tried to randomize, because the time is not going to be the same for every person," Dunn said. "And we tried to make it easy to read," Jacob said of their binder full of data.

Their conclusion was that a system in which passengers board starting with window seats, then middle and aisle, was the most time-efficient.

"It works best because it puts the least number of people in your way as you board," Jacob said.

"There was an average of four minutes difference between that and the back-to-front method," Oster said.

They admit that passengers traveling together, who usually are seated in the same row, would likely not board together under that plan, which could present problems, especially for families with children. The back-to-front system now used by some airlines came in second.

The team had entered the contest last year and said they liked the challenge of having to develop and complete a project in four days.

"It's a fun weekend," Jacob said.

Rowan Professor Hieu Nguyen said the project also showed that creative thinking is just as important as knowing how to run computer programs. He said the teamwork required to complete so much work in so little time also was a critical factor.
"This wasn't just about math," he said. "Math really is a very creative field, but people don't think of it that way. It needs better public relations."

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Date Published: Monday, April 30, 2007 - 01:00
Source URL: Press of Atlantic City