Over the past few weeks there seems to be an unusual frequency of stories regarding airline passengers attempting to open a commercial airliner’s door in flight. The thought of a door opening in flight is scary, and with good reason … people fear being sucked out of a plane and the rapid decompression causing plane to crash … but the reality is that once a commercial airliner begins to pressurize during its taxi from the gate to the runway the it is virtually impossible for a passengers, or even a group of passengers, to open a door.
The physics of opening a door on a commercial airliner make the possibility of a passenger rotating the ‘open lever,’ and having the door open in flight highly improbable. The majority of commercial passenger aircraft cabin doors are ‘plug’ doors. A ‘plug’ door is designed in such a way that the door’s physical size is larger than the hole it is placed into. In order to open a modern jet airliner’s door, the door must swing into the cabin before swinging out of the cabin. Once an airplane begins to pressurize, the pressure around the seals around the door prevent the door from become dislodged, and on many aircraft requires a mechanical mechanism to physically lift the door.
What prevents a door from being pulled into the cabin to swing it out? According to Boeing “Since airplanes typically cruise above 30,000 feet, the air pressure inside the plane is much greater than the pressure outside — and that pressure differential makes it impossible to open the door, even if somebody wanted to do such a thing.”
Regarding the pressure holding a cabin door in place, Karlene Petitt, a veteran commercial airline pilot, says, “A group couldn’t open it because they don’t have the strength and ability. There is no way to harness the combined strength”
Gailen David, CEO of Jetiquette and a long time flight attendant with a major international airline, recalls two incidents that demonstrate the power of a pressurized cabin door. “I discovered just how impossible it is to open an airplane door before the cabin has been depressurized upon arrival at Chicago O’Hare. I went to open the door and it would not budge one bit. I advised the cockpit and they told me to wait about 15 seconds. Then everything worked perfectly. They had not depressurized the cabin.”
Gailen goes onto also discuss the dangers of pressurized cabin doors, “There was American Airlines A-300 incident in Miami in which a flight attendant was ejected from an airliner and died while the plane was on the ground and attempting an evacuation. The plane was not depressurized when the flight attendant lifted the lever…. however he left the lever in the open position and as soon as the cockpit crew depressurized the cabin, the door was suddenly able to open, but the sudden rush of pressure sent the flight attendant out the door as well.”
There is no doubt it is scary when a passenger runs towards a door and reaches for the ‘open lever,’ but there is no immediate danger to the passengers or aircraft, even if the ‘open lever’ is pulled and rotated.
The best advice comes from Gailen David … “Quick tip: Don’t touch the lever!”