A passenger accidentally released a small canister of pepper spray on a taxiing United flight, just before taking off from a Florida Airport!
The incident happened last Monday afternoon, local time, in Southwest Florida International Airport (Fort Myers, KRSW). Passengers had already boarded the aircraft, a Boeing 737-900ER. Their destination was Newark (NEWR), on flight UAL1061. The aircraft had left the gate and was taxiing for take-off, when a passenger released a pepper spray on board. The man apparently did so by mistake.
Many passengers had started coughing on the aircraft, before anyone could understand what was happening. A passenger commented that it was a stressful moment. Even those who had not yet smelled the released pepper spray looked on nervously at those coughing, thinking of Covid-19! Eventually the owner of the canister exclaimed that he accidentally bumped it, while he was sat down.
From passenger descriptions, it appears that the man who released the pepper spray was sitting in the front row, right by the exit. The device he had was part of his key-chain. The aircraft had to taxi back to the gate. While pepper sprays are legal to own in the United States, they are not allowed on board aircraft! Their owners can also face prosecution if they use them without a genuine provocation, even accidentally.
Effects Of The Released Pepper Spray In The Cabin
Understandably, other passengers felt the effects of the released pepper spray. As we have seen, ventilation in airliners can filter the air in the cabin very quickly. But pepper sprays work by releasing capsaicin, in a way that makes it linger on surfaces. Capsaicin is the same stuff you get from eating chilli peppers. The material also sees use as a localized pain relieving substance, for sports injuries.
After the incident, United Airlines released the following statement:
“On Monday, United flight 1061 from Fort Myers, Florida to Newark, NJ returned to the gate due to a disruptive incident involving a customer prior to take off. Soon after, the flight safely departed for Newark.“
But when the aircraft returned to the gate, the man who released the pepper spray wasn’t the only one leaving the plane. At least two other passengers had to leave. A couple, one of whom had a history of asthma, decided they needed to go. They later complained that the airline did not help accommodate them on a different flight, or a hotel.
It is not clear if the man deliberately sneaked his pepper spray past the TSA agents. Whatever his intentions, the agents didn’t spot it. After the incident, TSA management at the airport gave its agents additional on-the-spot training, regarding pepper sprays and similar devices. And as we saw, TSA in general are looking to hire more staff in the upcoming months.
The flight eventually left the ground at 2:25pm, a delay of over two hours. However there had been some delay even before this incident. The aircraft made back some of that time, on an otherwise uneventful flight to Newark.