A baggage handler was locked inside an airplane's cargo area during a 1.5 hour flight from North Carolina to northern Virginia yesterday.

A United Airlines spokeswoman said today that the airline was looking into how it had happened. The baggage handler was unharmed.

United Express Flight 6060, operated by Mesa Airlines, took off from Charlotte Douglas Airport just before 3pm local time and landed at Washington-Dulles on schedule about 90 minutes later.

The plane, a 50-seat Embraer 170, rose to 8230m, according to flight records. A United spokeswoman could not say whether the plane's cargo hold was temperature controlled or pressurised.

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At some point, workers in Charlotte, North Carolina, realised there was a possibility that someone was locked in the belly of the airplane and contacted the Federal Aviation Administration. They, in turn, alerted officials at Dulles, according to airport officials there.

Emergency responders at Dulles were waiting at the gate.

The baggage handler was an employee of G2 Secure Staff, a United vendor based in Texas that supplies baggage handling services, airline officials said.

A company representative did not respond to a message.