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[Editorial] Step up airline safety

Daegu accident reveals lapses in airline safety; policy needed to avert fatal accidents

By Korea Herald

Published : May 30, 2023 - 05:31

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It is always too late to lament safety problems after a fatal accident has already taken place. In particular, midair accidents stemming from lax safety rules could have devastating results.

On Friday, a frightening accident involving a local carrier took place, alarming authorities and shocking the public. A passenger suddenly opened a door of an Asiana Airlines plane right before landing at Daegu International Airport -- when the aircraft was about 213 meters above ground.

The plane landed with the door open. None of the 194 people aboard were seriously injured, but nine panicked passengers were taken to a hospital after showing breathing difficulties.

When a 33-year-old man pulled the lever of the exit door and attempted to jump out, flight attendants shouted for help and people around him bravely tried to pull him in, while passengers near the door fainted one by one, according to witnesses and media reports.

Video footage showing the chaotic and urgent moment circulated instantly on social media, with even foreign media outlets sharing the terrifying clip.

The suspect, only identified by his surname Lee, initially would not talk about why he did such a dangerous act. He has been detained by police since Friday amid a torrent of reports churned out about the midair accident.

On Sunday, the Daegu District Court issued a warrant to arrest Lee for alleged violation of the aviation security law, recognizing the risk of flight he posed and the seriousness of the case. Under the law, a passenger could face a prison term of up to 10 years for compromising the security of the flight by manipulating the doors, emergency exits or devices of an airplane.

The suspect at the local court for questioning said he was “very sorry to the children” who were aboard the plane. He referred to 48 elementary- and middle-school athletes who were on board to join a national sports event on Saturday in the nearby city of Ulsan.

Not only those young students, but also other passengers are likely to suffer trauma from the incident. Asiana Airlines and related authorities are required to proactively help them deal with trauma and extend necessary support.

According to police, Lee earlier said he suffered stress after he lost his job and wanted to get off the plane quickly because he felt suffocated. His excuse for an extremely risky action that could have cost the lives of innocent people was utterly absurd. Police must carry out a thorough investigation into Lee and what led him to open the door just minutes before landing.

The arrest of the suspect and a police investigation are unlikely to soften public concerns surrounding the midair accident. Emergency exits should be designed to be opened by flight attendants or passengers when a fire breaks out or another life-threatening incident takes place. But this does not mean that a single passenger should be able to easily open the door when the plane is in midair.

In fact, it is not the first time a passenger has tried to open the door of local airplane, even when there was no immediate danger.

As part of a temporary fix, Asiana Airlines said Sunday it had halted the sale of certain emergency seats of A321-200 passenger jets -- the same aircraft model whose door was opened by Lee. The seats right beside the emergency doors in A321-200s will be excluded for reservation even when all seats on the planes are fully booked, the company said in a statement.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is set to launch an investigation into the accident. It remains unclear whether stopping the sale of seats near the emergency door would effectively prevent future accidents. In this regard, the Land Ministry needs to work closely with airlines to strengthen overall safety involving emergency doors and come up with stronger measures to prevent accidents.