Pepper spray is apparently released aboard Hawaiian flight

No injuries in emergency incident midway between California, Kahului

Passengers on Hawaiian Flight 23 deplaned using the stairs Friday, following an apparent pepper spray incident aboard the Oakland, Calif., to Kahului flight. Many were treated by paramedics on the tarmac. -- KEVIN OLSON photo

Passengers were “coughing and choking” in first class midway on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Oakland, Calif., to Maui on Friday morning after the release of pepper spray into the cabin that “affected everybody,” according to a passenger.

“Everyone was just coughing and coughing. You could not get a breath of fresh air,” said Maui resident Kevin Olson, who was on the flight.

Hawaiian Airlines said the odor was due to a passenger bringing pepper spray on board, a prohibited carry-on item. Authorities were questioning a passenger and investigating what appears to have been an accidental canister discharge, the airlines said.

About halfway into the flight, Olson said there was a heavy chemical odor in first class. The woman next to him sneezed, then everyone in the cabin started coughing and their eyes began watering, he said.

Flight attendants wearing painter’s masks began passing out wet paper towels to passengers. Olson used a blanket; others used their shirts to help them breathe and to shield them from the chemical in the air.

A canister of pepper spray apparently discharged in the first-class cabin of Hawaiian Airlines Flight 23 on Friday from Oakland, Calif., to Kahului. After landing at Kahului Airport, passengers were treated by medics on the tarmac. -- KEVIN OLSON photo

With the flight closer to Maui, the pilot declared an emergency, continued to Kahului Airport and landed the plane 37 minutes later, he said.

First-class passengers were led to the back of the plane after the chemical discharge, said Olson in a call from his cellphone while being checked out by paramedics at Kahului Airport.

Passengers in the rear of the plane were “all freaking out” as they saw 40 people with napkins over their faces coming toward the back of the aircraft, Olson said.

About a half-hour passed before the affected passengers were led back to their first-class seats, Olson said.

Hawaiian Airlines Flight 23 from Oakland to Maui landed without incident around 10:40 a.m. Friday, after the crew reported fumes in the cockpit, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

In a statement, Hawaiian Airlines confirmed that passengers in the forward section of the Boeing 767 experienced an “unpleasant odor” and “out of an abundance of caution” the flight crew declared an emergency to obtain priority landing into Kahului Airport.

There were 256 passengers and 10 crew members on board. First responders treated 12 passengers and three flight attendants for respiratory issues.

Olson said passengers disembarked via stairs onto the tarmac, instead of the jetway.

He said the chemical incident was not the only eventful thing to happen on the flight, which initially was delayed an hour and a half.

Hawaiian said that prior to departure of the flight, a teenage passenger inadvertently sent a photo of a school science project depicting a fake crime scene featuring a child-sized mannequin to the cellphones of nearby passengers.

Olson said the teenager used Apple AirDrop, which allows a user to share photos, videos and documents with nearby people who have a Mac iOS device. Oakland police were called in after the distribution of the photo.

To resume the flight as quickly as possible and to minimize the inconvenience to flyers, the teenager and the family were rebooked on a later flight while the incident was investigated, Hawaiian said. The flight’s departure was delayed for nearly an hour and a half while the bags of the family were located and removed.

The two incidents were unrelated, Hawaiian said. The airline apologized to passengers and is providing them a $500 travel credit.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at