Photo: Pierre-Yves Babelon/Shutterstock

What Actually Happens if You Open the Airplane Door Mid-Flight

Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Feb 28, 2024

Anxious flyers know what it feels like to be hyper aware of everything on the plane. The placement of the oxygen masks, the slightest rumble of turbulence, and, of course, the exit doors. Maybe you’ve simply logged their location in your brain in case of an emergency, or maybe you nervously worry about what would happen if they, somehow, opened mid-flight. The mere thought alone is enough to give you a panic attack at 30,000 feet. We’ve all seen it happen in movies and cartoons — the plane door opens accidentally or nefariously and a whoosh of air swirls through the cabin, sucking all the passengers into freefall. But what’s the truth behind the plane doors, and is it even possible to open them during your flight?

People have certainly tried. Several videos have emerged of passengers attempting to open airplane exit doors, both inflight and while on the ground.

In late 2023, a passenger managed to open an exit door as the plane was about to land in Seoul, South Korea, causing wind to blast through the plane. Though nine passengers were taken to the hospital with breathing issues, the plane was able to land safely.

Another man, on a Southwest flight, opened the emergency exit just before takeoff and jumped onto the wing. He was apprehended by the crew and taken to the hospital.

Most recently, just a few days ago on an American Airlines flight from Albuquerque to Chicago, a man tried to open the exit door but was restrained by passengers. He was ultimately duct-taped to ensure he caused no further issues.

Though attempts to open the plane door mid-flight certainly aren’t common by any metric, they do happen. But don’t worry — the science behind it all means you almost definitely won’t have to engage in a dramatic takedown of an unruly passenger anytime soon.

Can you even open the plane door mid-flight?

The short answer is no, the plane door can’t be opened mid-flight, but it could potentially be opened on descent. And it all comes down to cabin pressure and mechanical locks.

“The plane door can be opened mid-flight, but it depends on the cabin pressure,” Danielle Keenan, flight attendant for JetBlue, tells Matador Network. “If we’re cruising at 35,000 feet and the cabin pressure is at 8,000, it would be incredibly hard to open.”

Plane cabins are pressurized, which allows passengers to breathe normally even when flying at high altitudes. That means there are around eight pounds of pressure pushing against the door for every square inch of the plane’s interior.

Michele Meo, a professor of materials at the University of Bath, told WIRED that it’s actually impossible to open the plane door mid-flight. Since the cabin pressure is higher than the outside air pressure, the doors are sealed against the frame of the airplane.

The doors are also, literally, locked in midair, and these locks are controlled by the pilot. Steve Wright, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of the West of England, told WIRED that the doors are locked while at high altitude and only unlock when the plane lands. Only after the pilot announces “doors to manual,” Wright says, can the doors actually be opened.

All of this means that regardless of how much time a passenger spends in the gym, any attempt to open them at high altitude will be (thankfully) futile. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be opened at lower altitude.

“During descent,” Keenan explains, “they usually let the cabin pressure out so the door would be easy to open.”

Another flight attendant, who preferred to be kept anonymous for fear of inadvertently inspiring passengers to open plane doors, told Matador Network, “Airplane doors and windows cannot be opened in the air because of pressurization, but can be opened on descent, or on the ground during boarding or taxiing, which can be very dangerous. Slides and slide rafts could be deployed, hurting people on the ground.”

And if you’ve ever wondered what scenario would cause oxygen masks to deploy, well, this is it.

“If a passenger were able to open the doors or the over wing window exits, it would result in a cabin decompression,” Keenan says. “If a decompression happens above 10,000 feet, you are required to get on oxygen immediately, and the oxygen masks would automatically deploy. Below 10,000 feet, you can breathe basically normally.”

The protocol for dealing with a rogue, door-opening passenger

It’s a question that always seems to arise when we hear about unruly or dangerous plane passengers: what happens to them? There’s not exactly a jail in the sky, and since there are no security offers on most flights, who’s in charge of actually maintaining order. The answer is both obvious and, perhaps, shocking: flight attendants, and you. Yes, you.

“We are trained to restrain the passengers with the flex cuffs,” Keenan says of passengers who cause disturbances. “But as passengers are boarding the aircraft, we are taught to look for able-bodied individuals who can assist us in the event of an emergency. So hopefully we have some ‘ABPs’ (Able Bodied Persons) willing to jump into action!”

That’s right. You might not realize it, but you’re secretly being screened to assess your physical capability to assist in an emergency. Odds are, though, the incident would take place so quickly that passengers would simply need to react reflexively, rather than be called upon individually by flight attendants. That’s what happened on the recent American Airlines flight when passengers acted quickly to prevent a man from opening the exit door.

If the incident didn’t happen in the air, however, the passenger would be handed over to the authorities. While exact consequences differ on a case-by-case basis, the passenger could expect some pretty severe repercussions.

“If this happened on the ground we would return to the gate immediately and the state police would meet the gate,” Keenan says. “I don’t know if the consequence is a monetary charge or if they are just forbidden to fly on that airline. So many new fines have been implemented for passengers behaving badly, so I would assume a hefty fine is attached.”

Since many passengers who try to open plane doors are in the throes of a mental illness, transfer to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation and treatment is also common.

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