SEOUL, South Korea — A man who opened an emergency exit door during a flight in South Korea was formally arrested Sunday and faces up to 10 years in prison on a charge of violating the aviation security law, officials said.
During a preliminary questioning, the 33-year-old told investigators that he felt suffocated and tried to get off the plane quickly, according to police.
Twelve people were slightly injured on Friday after he opened the door of the Asiana Airlines Airbus A321-200, causing air to blast inside the cabin and terrifying passengers. Some testified they suffered severe ear pain and saw others screaming and crying. A video shared on social media shows passengers’ hair being whipped by air blowing into the cabin.
Normally, the emergency exit doors cannot be opened mid-flight due to the difference in air pressure inside and outside of the aircraft. But during Friday’s incident, the man succeeded in opening the door likely because the plane was flying at a low altitude while preparing to land and there wasn’t much difference in pressure, according to Asiana Airlines officials.
The Transport Ministry said the plane was at 700 feet (213 meters) when the man pulled the door open. The plane was preparing to land in Daegu on an hour-long flight from the southern island of Jeju with 200 people on board. They included teenage athletes on their way to a track and field competition, according to Asiana Airlines.
On Sunday, a district court in Daegu approved a warrant to formally arrest the man. Police earlier sought the arrest warrant, citing the graveness of the crime and a possibility the man may flee, according to Daegu police.
“I wanted to get off the plane soon,” the man, whose face was covered by a black hoodie, a cap and a mask, told reporters at the court ahead of its review of his arrest warrant. “I’m really sorry to kids," he said, in a likely reference to the teenage athletes.
Daegu police said they have up to 20 days to investigate the man before determining whether to send him to prosecutors for a possible indictment.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for breaching the aviation security law that bars passengers from handling entry doors, emergency exit doors and other equipment on board, according to the Transport Ministry.
Daegu police said the man, surnamed Lee, told them that he was under stress after losing a job recently and that he wanted to get out of the plane soon because he was feeling suffocated just before landing.
The people who were taken to hospitals were mainly treated for minor problems such as breathing difficulties.
Asiana Airlines said in a statement that starting from Sunday, it stopped the sale of emergency exit seats on its 174-seat A321-200 planes and the 195-seat A321-200s as a safety precaution. Lee was seated near the emergency exit, airlines officials said.