Most of you by now have heard about the Delta flight last week that turned into a scene from the movie Roadhouse. 23 year-old Joseph Hudek was traveling as the dependent of a Delta employee in first class from Seattle to Beijing when he suddenly tried to open one of the doors about an hour into the flight, managing to raise the opening lever about halfway. When flight attendants and passengers attempted to subdue Hudek, he punched them repeatedly and hit them with a bottle – which the criminal complaint helpfully illustrates was a “red dessert wine bottle” (heaven forbid it was merlot). Hudek was on a mission, however, and kept attempting to open the door as the fight raged on, even after being hit with not one but two wine bottles by a flight attendant – one of them a liter bottle, which did not faze the man in the slightest. “Do you know who I am?” he yelled. Well, that’s not an issue now.
Eventually Hudek was restrained after a long struggle and arrested upon return to Seattle. But the situation raised some questions about the amount of force used against him relative to his actions. Let’s start with the first one: Were the passengers on the flight in danger for their lives because Hudek had attempted to open the door?
The short and easy answer is no. While I’m pretty astonished that the handle came up halfway, the fact of the matter is that the cabin is pressurized to be around 8 lbs. per square inch at the altitude they would have reached in that phase of flight. Aircraft doors open inward, so fighting that kind of pressure would require beyond superhuman strength. None of us would want to leave to chance that a seal might be compromised and cause a slow decompression, but that, too, is nearly impossible.
So, then, were the flight attendants wrong in using such force against a man who was trying to do something that he was physically unable to achieve? Should they have just let him play with the door handle until he got bored of it and then had him arrested upon return to Seattle? I don’t think so in the slightest. To begin with, the act of trying to open the door in itself is a threat. It signals that the person means to do harm to themselves, those onboard and to the aircraft. So in that, of course the crew did as they should to try and restrain him.
However, Hudek fought, and fought hard. He was the first to bring a wine bottle into the fracas, which absolutely could be construed as being a lethal weapon. And for him to stave off multiple people for so long showed that more force was required than for your average person. While the wine bottle was probably not the best weapon of choice (once it broke, it then became then a very sharp set of knives), I can’t blame the crew and assisting passengers at all for using what was at hand in an emergency.
Looking at the photos of the aftermath and reading the account of what happened, it’s a surprise that no one, especially Hudek, was killed. We review scenarios of onboard attackers in our recurrent training every year, but none of us expects to see it in the course of our careers. It sounds like, by recruiting assistance in the cabin and doing everything possible to restrain him and prevent him from hurting more people, that the crew followed procedure as they should have. I wish all involved a speedy recovery, both physically and mentally, and would like to believe that I would have fought just as hard as they did to protect all on board.