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Could an Alaska Airlines passenger really get emergency exit open, mid-flight?

Sean Doogan

It is the stuff of nightmares. Sleepy passengers aboard an overnight trip from Anchorage to Portland, Ore., Monday morning, awoke to the sounds of screaming and fighting after a passenger tried to open the emergency exit door. Flight 132 was approaching Portland International Airport, when the FBI says 23-year old Alexander Herrera jumped up, yelling, and tried to open the plane’s emergency exit door as it was descending. Herrera was subdued by nearby passengers, and restrained with shoelaces and seatbelts until the plane landed and was met by police.  

“It is highly unlikely that Herrera would have succeeded in getting the door open,” said Bobbie Egan, spokesperson for Alaska Airlines. That’s because the doors have automatic deadbolt locks that clamp into place when the wheels of the plane leave the ground.  They cannot be opened again until sensors in the undercarriage indicate the plane is back on terra firma.  Pressure also plays a factor in keeping the doors closed during flight. Emergency exit doors open inward, and cabin pressure pushes against them.  

“Our planes are pressurized during flight, so even if the automatic locks were not working, it would be very difficult to open an exit door, in-flight,” Egan said.

Herrera’s father told NBC’s “Today Show” that his son was bipolar and had stopped taking his medication in recent months. Passengers said Herrera was “talking strangely” before he jumped out of his seat and tried to pry open the door. He remains in custody in Oregon, awaiting an appearance in federal court.  

Despite the safeguards, Alaska Airlines said it is thankful for the quick actions of both crew and passengers. “Our flight attendants and flight crew are trained to deal with unruly or dangerous passengers, and have flex-cuffs  (plastic ties used by law enforcement and security personnel), but they were not necessary because the passengers had already restrained Mr. Herrera by other means,” Egan said.  The airline also noted because of his size – more than 220 pounds -- several plastic cuffs would have been needed to hold Herrera’s arms. So the crew decided to leave him tied up the way he was.  

It has become common practice for airlines to train crews how to restrain problem passengers in-flight.  

Hong Kong Airlines has gone a step further, training its flight attendants in the martial arts style known as Wing Chun because it is especially useful in confined spaces.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com