While many airlines keep passengers apart by blocking middle seats, a team of scientists at the University of Illinois says that's not always the safest approach.
"What we discovered is that in many cases, leaving the middle seat empty actually leaves the airplane more risky," said Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois.
And what happens when the middle row is empty? More passengers sitting directly in front of and directly behind one another.
"The conventional wisdom is, 'I don't want to sit next to someone cause that's not safe,' but what people aren't thinking about is that's an East/West transmission! There's also North/South transmission, which is the people in front of you or behind you," said Dr. Jacobson.
Dr. Jacobson co-lead the study, which uses models to help airlines configure their seating charts more safely and more efficiently.
"What we found is you can put 20 percent more people on an airplane using middle seats without increasing risk to the entire population of passengers," said Dr. Jacobson.
"The airlines are going to have to adapt to an environment where people are going to wear masks, be vaccinated," said Dr. Jacobson. "Let's move forward intelligently. Sometimes the eye test is deceiving. People say, 'Because it looks safe, it must be safe,' and that's not always true."
Dr. Jacobson hopes his team's research will help airlines safely accommodate the growing number of American air travelers.