A teenager shocked passengers travelling on a Copa Airlines flight when he flung open the emergency exit and dramatically slid down the wing onto the tarmac, minutes after the plane had touched down in San Francisco.

The 17-year-old boy opened the door as soon as the flight from Panama City had landed at San Francisco airport. Other passengers said he seemed anxious and fidgety during the flight and that he acted very quickly, making it difficult for anyone to stop him.

"It was as if he was like flying out, like it was really fast," passenger Sophia Gibson of San Jose, California told broadcaster KNTV.

"People were yelling, 'Tell the flight attendants. Relay the message back. The door's open. Someone jumped off,'" said Matt Crowder of Atherton, California.

The boy was confronted by an airfield construction crew on the tarmac and arrested. It is a federal law to open an emergency exit on a plane without having been instructed to do so by the crew.

Police did not release the teenager's name but confirmed that he is a US citizen and was not harmed in the confrontation.

Passenger Isaac Rodrigues said they were all told to remain on the plane for over an hour as police dealt with the situation. A flight attendant stood in front of the open exit to ensure people did not fall out while leaving the plane, he said.

San Francisco Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said no other flights or runways were affected by the incident.

Copa Airlines said that an investigation is under way and that the airline is cooperating with authorities.