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How Easy Is It to Open the Emergency Exit Mid-Flight?

Spoiler: It’s not easy.

In a shocking incident reminiscent of a nightmare, a passenger in South Korea opened the emergency door of an aircraft that was minutes from landing. The Asiana Airlines plane was flying from Jeju Island to Daegu when the door opened about 2,300 feet above ground. Cell phone videos of the incident show passengers gripping their armrests as gushing winds tear through the aircraft.

Although no one was gravely injured, nine people were hospitalized out of the 200 on board. A man was arrested and faces up to 10 years in prison. Asiana Airlines has decided to stop selling emergency exit seats in the aftermath.

Related: ‘Why Do I Need to Keep Window Shades Open?’ and 5 Other Flight Questions Answered

Can This Happen Mid-Flight?

Here’s the good news: It is impossible to open an emergency exit mid-flight. You can put all your fears of getting sucked out of the plane to rest. 

For context, think of Mount Everest, which towers over 29,000 feet (8,849 meters). Oxygen levels start to drop as you ascend the mountain—at 12,000 feet, oxygen is 40% lower than at sea level. Air pressure decreases as the altitude increases and there is less oxygen available for us to breathe. That’s why climbers acclimatize over weeks and carry oxygen tanks with them. Even so, they are at risk of hypoxia (a lack of oxygen that results in brain or heart damage). Your body starts to die at that altitude, and that’s what makes this mountain so dangerous. 

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Planes cruise at 35,000 feet. Above 18,000 feet, the air becomes so thin with a lack of oxygen that you won’t be able to breathe and you’ll pass out in less than a minute—same logic. But we don’t get unconscious when we fly because planes maintain cabin pressure. So, there is a great difference between the air pressure inside and outside of the plane, which is what keeps the plane doors shut.

Airplane doors act like a drain plug and the high pressure inside the cabin keeps them sealed against the frame of the aircraft. Almost all emergency doors open inwards, and front doors may slide out but they first have to be pulled inwards, too. This video by Insider Tech explains that inside the cabin, around eight pounds of pressure push against every square inch of area. For a door that measures 6 x 3.5 feet, the pressure is more than 24,000 pounds–it’s humanly impossible to exert that much force. 

Related: It’s Terrifying What Airlines Are Missing in Their Emergency Kits

However, it is possible to do it when the plane is stationary, about to land, or about to take-off. This is what happened on the Asiana flight—it was just minutes from touching the ground. Patrick Smith, author and blogger behind Ask the Pilot, explains this particular incident. “As a plane descends, the pressure differential lessens, eventually dropping to zero at the point of touchdown. When very close to the ground, the ‘weight’ holding the doors shut may in fact be negligible enough to permit a door to open.”

The Asiana plane was landing, so the passengers were most likely wearing seat belts, which may have prevented serious injuries. (In fact, it is recommended that you should wear seat belts for the duration of the flight to keep yourself safe in events of turbulence.) Smith adds, “It’ll be noisy and scary, and unsecured objects could get whipped around; but without any serious pressure differential, nobody’s getting sucked out.” 

The emergency exit doors of an airliner usually cannot be locked, aviation expert and CEO of AFuzion Vance Hilderman tells Fodor’s. “It enables rescue crews to enter the aircraft, and passengers to exit the aircraft in the case of an emergency.” But when an exit door is dislodged, the pilots get notified and the passenger will be restrained and face penalties.

It’s Not a Lone Incident

Attempts have been made on flights in the U.S. to open the emergency doors, too. 

In March, a man was arrested after he tried to open the emergency door of a United Airlines flight traveling from Los Angeles to Boston. He also attempted to stab a flight attendant and he now faces a sentence of up to life in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Last year, on a flight from Houston to Columbus, a woman also tried to open the door 37,000 feet in the air, but she was detained by passengers and the plane made an emergency landing.

In another bizarre incident, a passenger in Los Angeles successfully opened the door, activated the slide, and exited the stationary plane that was preparing for take-off. He was later arrested and all passengers were accommodated on other flights.

After the pandemic, there has been an uptick in unruly behavior on flights around the world. In the U.S., the problem escalated so much that a zero-tolerance approach was adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration with up to $35,000 in civil penalties and criminal prosecution.

Related: The FBI Wants You to Report These Crimes if They Occur on Your Flight 

It may not actually be possible to open the emergency door while the plane is cruising, but even tampering with the handle or attempting the feat can land you on the no-fly list or in jail.