Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Minor changes in college majors over the past 40 years and immigration reform; how are they connected?

This is a fun data visualization I came across on NPR, but you have to really look at the percentages on the interactive version to get the clear picture of how much things have changed over the past 40 years.


One thing is clear from this snapshot though: Education majors have declined considerably since 1970. Over the same period, there was an increase in majors for the health professions, no doubt correlating with greater opportunities as baby boomers age. Business majors also saw an increase. Sadly, math, engineering, and computer science majors still constitute a pretty small piece of the pie, which is why immigrants are responsible for about half the startups in Silicon Valley, and why Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley heavy-hitters were putting their money behind immigration reform in 2013 (@FWD_us). For Silicon Valley, immigration reform is really a recruiting strategy to bring science, technology, engineering, and math talent to the U.S.
Other leaders in Silicon Valley are focusing on education reform and also trying to make computer science education more exciting and accessible. There are now several online schools that cover everything from how toprogram a robotic car to learning to code Ruby on Rails the zombie way—and all for free (well, now Udacity is charging $150 a month for access to its more advanced courses, so if you want to program the next Google car, you’ll have to pony up some cash).
All that to say, it’s clear the U.S. could use some more kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees if we’re going to stay innovative in the future. We could also use a boost in the agriculture and chemistry fields if we want to continue eating for the next 40 years, although I just heard McDonald’s is moving to lab-created chicken for its McNuggets… to that I say, weren’t they already some sort of lab creation?

Monday, May 5, 2014

The science of boarding an airplane: much more complicated than you’d think.

And, yes, it’s because they’ve crammed too many seats on the plane, but there are other more subtle reasons as well. If you’ve flown Southwest Airlines, I’ll bet you were just watching the clock waiting to be able to check in so you could get an earlier boarding group and a decent seat. Did you feel this was an efficient way of getting on the plane? Contrast it with an experience where you have a designated seat and think about how long it took to board in that context.
For me, it always feels like 90% of the people on the plane have never flown before and are completely unaware of how the process works. But as it turns out, there is no standard process for loading a plane. Boeing apparently does research on the time it takes to load and unload every model of its planes and sells this valuable info to airlines. It’s a fascinating bit of research for airlines trying to increase efficiency at the gate.
The figure below is a Boeing trend-over-time study of its 757-300 model, showing that we’re boarding more slowly every year for nearly the last four decades. And interestingly enough, Boeing’s big selling point for this plane was the fact that it wouldn’t take any longer to load and unload than the previous model. Quick, where can I buy one of these?!?
Just in case you don’t “jet off” to the Boeing site to read the study, I’ve included some extracts here that give you the background of the serious science of boarding a plane, complete with its very own acronym.
The Boeing Passenger Enplane/Deplane Simulation (PEDS) offers airlines an additional tool to help reduce turn time. Depending on an individual airline’s operation, other elements of turn time, such as cargo handling, cabin cleaning, or galley servicing, may also be improved.
Boeing has a team of turn time experts that can work with airlines to analyze specific areas of concern. Airlines interested in evaluating solutions to their turn time problems should contact their local Field Service or Customer Requirements representative for assistance.
Simulation predictions were compared to the 757-200 passenger boarding test to validate results. Based on these validated predictions, it was possible to identify significant potential reductions to overall turn times for the 757-300. For example:
  • Using Door 2 instead of Door 1, boarding time (enplaning and deplaning) was reduced by one minute.*
  • Using Door 1 and Door 2 together saved five minutes.
  • If alternative loading procedures were used — such as the “outside-in” method of loading (window seats first, middle seats next, and aisle seats last) — the savings could be as great as 17 minutes. (figure 5b)
PEDS showed that the new 757-300 could be operated within the normal 757 turn time window of 60 minutes without making notable changes to existing procedures. It also showed that turn time could be reduced significantly if airlines used alternative passenger boarding methods.
*Emphasis mine
Normally, we think of things improving with new technology, especially over relatively significant periods of time. But in the airline business, apparently we’re just hoping to not get any worse. Eric Chemi of Businessweek poses some theories in his article and provides the data to back up the notion that things have, indeed, gotten worse.
Data back this up: Boeing’s (BA) research showed that boarding a plane was 50 percent slower in 1998 than in 1970. “Boeing believes that these trends will continue,” the study noted, “unless the root causes are understood and new tools and processes are developed to reverse the trend.”
One theory for the boarding dilemma is that airlines have no incentive to improve the process because they can upsell us on preferential treatments for a small fee or in return for our loyalty. So despite the fact that many methods for boarding a plane have been tested, and industry leaders like Boeing even offer insights on how their planes could be boarded more quickly, only some airlines take advantage of such methods. It turns out the “back-to-front” method most of us are used to experiencing is the worst and that Southwest’s seemingly random boarding is the faster approach at this point.
I’d like to thank the folks at KPCC on the Take Two show for bringing this topic back to the front of my mind and sharing Eric Chemi’s story from Businessweek.