Operating Emergency Doors in Flight

Q: How does one operate the emergency doors on airplane? Could some crazy person open them in flight?

Obviously many people don’t pay attention to the flight attendants or read the briefing cards, which explain in detail how to work the doors. You should know how to do this. But in midflight, no, the doors won’t open. That goes for the smaller emergency hatches and the main exits.

The hatches, usually found over the wings, are restricted by the outward-pushing forces of the pressurized fuselage. Like a drain plug they always open inward, and a person would not be capable of overcoming these forces until the aircraft is depressurized. The larger cabin doors are more complicated. Some operate manually, others mechanically. Secured by a series of locks, they also are subject to outward-acting pressure as in the case of the hatches, and/or sensors that do not allow movement while the plane is pressurized.

You’ll notice that on the flat, shelf portion of the door — so alluring as a resting spot while waiting for the lav — it often says DO NOT SIT. While I wouldn’t recommend it, you could probably sit there all day jiggling the handle to your heart’s content without causing havoc, though you might break the pressurized seal causing some horrendous noise, or set off a warning light interrupting the captain’s breakfast. The other reason they don’t want you sitting there is to avoid messing with the inflatable escape slide that lives inside the lower door structure.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.