Einstein’s theory of general relativity was supposed to help mankind understand the nature of the universe. But in what scientists have described as a "beautiful coincidence", the complex geometry used to describe relativity can also be used for a more mundane problem: getting passengers on board a plane.
While airlines often try to board passengers by seat row, the theory says allowing them to board in a random manner would be quicker.
Now the Israeli scientists behind the research say they are in talks with a "major airline" interested in using their findings.
The scientists realised that when passengers board according to row number, they tend to get in each other’s way, causing congestion that leads to long, frustrating queues.
The key factor is to reduce the amount of contact between passengers, which cuts delays to a minimum.
The scientists pointed out that low-cost airlines which do not assign a seat appear to have fewer boarding problems than those which do, perhaps because people will choose a more convenient seat rather than stubbornly waiting for the one they have been allotted.
Dr Eitan Bachmat, of Ben- Gurion University said: "What we suggest is that airlines just don’t bother too much with annoying their customers and either board randomly or, if they want to do something, let the window people on, then the middle and then the aisle seats. Playing with the rows seems to be futile."
Dr Bachmat was originally working on a way of ordering information-processing within a computer when a colleague noticed this resembled the way people boarded planes. The team’s remarkable finding was that Lorentzian geometry could be used to illustrate passenger congestion.
The complex maths behind Lorentzian geometry is usually used to describe the path of an object through the space-time continuum, which is governed by Einstein’s theory of relativity. But a graph plotting this motion mirrors one which describes how passengers who do not get to their seat quickly cause a ripple effect that ultimately delays the time when the last passenger is seated.
"I found it surprising. It seems to be under very particular circumstances – this does not generalise easily to other systems, or not at all," Dr Bachmat said.
"It’s not some grand theory – as far as I can tell – just a beautiful coincidence."
Those passengers who want to help reduce the amount of time taken to get on board should keep their distance from other people to reduce congestion, try to take as little luggage as possible and "be disciplined", Dr Bachmat said.
Airlines could also make some changes beyond introducing random boarding, by having first class passengers board with everybody else, he said.
However, a spokesman for British Airways said most people want to book their seat in advance and prefer to know where they are going to be sitting.
A FREE-FOR-ALL may not sound like the best way to put people on an aircraft, but there are examples where allowing chaos to reign appears to be better than attempts to impose order.
Traffic lights on Carlisle’s busiest junction were taken away after it was accidentally discovered that traffic flowed better without them. The council reported "no particularly severe congestion problems" after they were removed.
In London, a study found putting pavements at the same level as the road made things safer for pedestrians.
The lack of a defined kerb appears to have helped persuade 90 per cent of motorists to obey 20mph speed limits on rat-runs where previously about 50 per cent of drivers broke the limit.
Two-thirds of residents said drivers had become more considerate to pedestrians and cyclists.
However, Dr Eitan Bachmat, who studied the way people board planes, said he did not think his theory could help to cut traffic congestion.
"It could in some ways fit if you have one long road and traffic goes in and out of junctions, but I’ve not been able to persuade myself that this would really give a realistic picture," he said.