“Are you ready, willing, and able to assist in the event of an emergency?” If you’re a traveler who chooses an exit-row seat, it’s a familiar phrase. While regulations vary from country to country, flight attendants for U.S. commercial airlines will ask this question to those seated by the airplane exit door—and require individual verbal confirmation. After all, with greater legroom comes greater responsibility.
However, passengers near an exit row on a recent Asiana Airlines flight in South Korea got a lot more than extra legroom. Flight OZ8124, an Airbus A321-200 jet with 194 passengers and six crew onboard, was a few minutes from landing at Daegu International Airport, when a man seated at the exit opened the door at approximately 700 feet above the ground. All 200 individuals onboard survived, with 12 passengers suffering minor injuries as high winds tore through the cabin.
That begs the question: How is it possible for the airplane door to be opened while the aircraft is in flight?
Why the door was able to open
First, let’s discuss a bit about the door itself. If you’ve ever—even apathetically—glanced at the airplane safety card in the seatback pocket, you may have noticed that airplane doors are straightforward to operate. Ryan Irwin, a pilot with more than 10 years of experience flying Boeing 787 and 737 commercial jets, says that while exit doors may vary slightly between manufacturers and specific plane types, the vast majority follow standard design specifications.
Most emergency exits are a “plug” type where the door itself has to move inward before it can be opened. “The doors need to be simple to operate, whether that is by a crew member or passenger,” Irwin told AFAR. And as stated in the Code of Federal Regulations, there must also be placards that “accurately state or illustrate the proper method of opening the exit.”
That all makes sense; a person should be able to open the door quickly in case there’s a need to evacuate the plane. However, it doesn’t quite answer the question of how it can happen in the middle of a flight. Well, according to Irwin, a door usually can’t be opened in the sky. “When the aircraft is pressurized, the door physically cannot be opened, due to the extremely high forces acting against the door.” The one kicker? In the case of this Asiana Airlines flight, the 33-year-old man—who later told police he was feeling suffocated and wanted to disembark quickly—opened the door at about 700 feet above the ground.
An unlikely event
At cruising altitude, the air outside has substantially less pressure than the air inside the cabin, which keeps those doors firmly locked in place; but once you get the plane to a lower altitude, say 700 feet, the pressure differential is much weaker. The Asiana Airlines A321 aircraft was a mere two to three minutes from landing, and even then, Irwin said, it likely took some force to open the door at this stage.
Irwin called this incident “one of the first of its kind” and believes it is highly unlikely there would be any physical design changes to airplane doors or emergency exits as a result. Call it what it is: a freak incident. However, procedural changes aren’t out of the question. After the incident, Asiana even went so far as to stop the sale of select emergency exit seats on the Airbus A321-200 aircraft (seat 26A on 174-seat models and seat 31A on 195-seat models).
Thus far, Asiana is the only airline to take such measures and even then, it’s with just 14 of its A321-200 aircraft. Therefore, you’ll likely still be able to choose an exit-row seat the next time you fly. However, keep in mind there’s a remote chance one other responsibility could be added to your list: preventing someone from trying to open the airplane door.