Over the last few months I've been getting more and more questions from friends about emergency exits on airplanes. There have been a few viral posts about passengers becoming disoriented or claustrophobic while in the air and making a lunge for the door to try to open it. Only to be restrained by flight attendants and passengers to prevent them from further operating the door.
The main question to come up is if a passenger would even be able to open an emergency exit door in flight and cause problems. The short answer is, no. Airplanes are designed in a way that would make it impossible.
Why do passengers try to open the emergency exits?
Flying is extremely safe, there is almost no reason to use an emergency exit. My educated, but completely unscientific, guess is one of two reasons. Passengers may become disoriented. When you're flying in a metal tube in a low oxygen environment people's bodies can do some crazy things, especially if mixed with alcohol or pills. Passengers may wake up from a nap and be unsure where they are and their first reaction is to escape and reground. Fight or Flight, and they choose flight to get somewhere safe. I don't believe they know exactly what they are doing and their brains are still catching up to reality when it happens.
Another reason I believe passengers may go for the emergency exit is claustrophobia or similar disorder. It's actually pretty common for someone with claustrophobia will be completely fine during boarding and sitting in their seat, but the moment the boarding door is closed and the plane starts to move the reality sets in and there is no way out. Their logical reaction is to get somewhere with an bigger and more open space. Sometimes those with these disorders may be able to control their fears and make it all the way in the air, and then there's a certain moment that triggers them and they become irrationally afraid.
There have been scholarly papers written about the fear of flying, and while I'm making my best educated guess I choose to believe that no sane or rational person would intentionally open an airplane door in flight.
Can you even open an emergency door in flight?
No. Airplanes are designed to be pressurized containers while flying to maintain an oxygenated atmosphere for passenger comfort. The weakest part of an airplane is the seals around doors and windows, that's why you have rounded windows to evenly distribute pressure and doors that are closed with a lip pressing along the inside of the airplane to force the door against the skin of the airplane from the inside.
When pressurized the doors of the airplane are exerting massive amount of forces from the inside of the airplane. At 36,000ft an airplane door is exerting somewhere around 24,000 pounds against the airplane due to pressurization. A human would have to overcome that weight to operate the door, not to mention in the process they would be depleting the oxygen in the environment once the door seals are broken.
This is why I believe that no sane or rational person would even attempt to open an airplane door inflight, pressurization of a canister is fairly easy to understand. The best example to think of is a soda can, it takes quite a bit of pressure from the tab to break the seal and then let all the pressure out.
One of my favorite YouTubers, EngineerGuy has a great video explaining pressure in a soda can, the physics are the same on an airplane that they would be on a can.
Is there ever a point you can open an airplane door inflight?
There are two situations that you would be able to open an airplane door inflight, the first being on an unpressurized aircraft. These would mostly be prop airplanes that carry only a few passengers, because they would be unpressurized there is no forces keeping the doors closed. However you would have to overcome the wind force streaming over the aircraft to open the door, which would be possible under human power.
And there is only one situation with a modern airliner a door could conceivably be opened in flight. During final approach to an airport the airplane will dump all the pressure to equalize with ground level to allow the doors to be using during a landing evacuation or for passenger deboarding at the gate. The time in which this happens is so short from final approach to landing it wouldn't give much time to do anything.
No sane or rational person would ever try to open a airplane door in flight, you simply could not overcome the immense amount of pressure keeping the door closed. I feel for the person having this episode and there are many resources and even in-person courses to manage certain fears. The bottom line is that if you were ever to try to operate a door inflight there is an alarm that alerts crews and major aviation fines and jail time can be associated if prosecuted. So don't try it!