There’s apparently just one way a baggage handler locked in the cargo hold of an outbound Charlotte flight could have survived his weekend ordeal, an aviation expert said Tuesday.
With two cargo compartments on-board, he would have needed to be in the heated one, said Glenn Harmon, a former airline pilot, expert on human physiology in the air and associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
The regional jet reportedly reached altitudes of up to 27,000 feet, where the outside ambient temperature would be minus 31 degrees to minus 40 degrees. That kind of cold puts people at risk for life-threatening hypothermia or oxygen deficiency.
“He’s very fortunate,” Harmon added. “He very likely could have died” in the other compartment.
And 27,000 feet, for comparison, would be the equivalent of nearing the top of Mount Everest, which reaches 29,000 feet.
Many questions remain about what happened on United Express Flight 6060, which left Charlotte Douglas International Airport Sunday afternoon for a nearly 90-minute trip to Washington Dulles International Airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it is investigating, as is United Airlines. The company said the flight was operated by Mesa Airlines; it landed safely at Dulles at 4:16 p.m. Once the plane was at the gate, an employee of the airline’s ground handling vendor was found unharmed in the cargo area, which was temperature-controlled and pressurized, United said.
The worker reportedly refused to be checked out by medics. An airline spokeswoman declined further comment.
The plane was an Embraer 175 regional jet with 76 seats, the airline said.
Such planes have two cargo compartments, in front of and in back of the wings, Harmon said. He said both would be pressurized but only the forward one would have heat and air conditioning similar to the passenger cabin. The smaller aft compartment could be used for mail, last-minute luggage or other items that are not temperature-dependent.
So how did the entrapment happen? Harmon mentioned several possibilities.
Typically with such regional jets, a conveyor belt brings bags into the cargo bay to be unloaded, where one person is on the ground and another is in the plane.
That process takes just a few minutes before the door is closed and locked in a matter of seconds. Perhaps an employee was sitting down and texting, not paying attention, or stationed behind some luggage when the door was locked, Harmon said.
Working around planes is a very noisy environment, and employees outside the aircraft wearing hearing protection might not realize someone is yelling for help.
“If you close that door and I’m in the baggage compartment, I’m going to be beating a hole in the side of that thing: ‘Hey let me out of here.’ ” Harmon said.
Passengers might be able to hear such knocking, but only for a short time when the plane is being pushed back before the engines are turned on.
The airline would investigate so such an incident would not happen again. Harmon said in this case, Mesa would do the safety management analysis since it operated the plane under contract for United.
A Mesa spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Airport officials initially treated the discovery as a security breach, as it worked to identify the employee.
Media outlets identified the employee as Reginald Gaskin of Charlotte.
Gaskin, 45, told the Washington Post, “I thank God. He was with me.” Gaskin told the Post that his attorney advised him not to discuss what happened. Gaskin works for Texas-based G2 Secure Staff, media outlets reported.
While rare, there have been other cases of baggage handlers getting trapped in cargo holds.
In 2015, pilots heard banging shortly after taking off from Seattle, returned to the airport and found the worker unhurt, the Associated Press reported. The worker apparently had dozed off. AP cited three similar cases, in 2011, 2009 and 2005; all of the baggage handlers survived.
Observer researcher Maria David contributed.