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Airline apologizes for plane prayer scare
On Sunday law enforcement met a plane at Los Angeles International Airport after praying passengers triggered security fears.
March 15th, 2011
02:01 PM ET

Airline apologizes for plane prayer scare

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Alaska Airlines has apologized for a weekend incident in which three Orthodox Jewish businessmen triggered security concerns by conducting a prayer ritual on board a flight to Los Angeles.

The men began praying out loud in Hebrew shortly after takeoff on Flight 241 from Mexico City. Flight attendants alerted the flight deck, which then called the tower and alerted law enforcement. When the plane arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, it was met by the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and airport police.

The men were questioned, their bags searched, and it was determined they were not a threat according to the FBI.

"Alaska Airlines embraces the cultural and religious diversity of our passengers and employees. We apologize for the experience these three passengers went through after landing in Los Angeles as well as for any inconvenience to our other customers onboard," Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.

Alaska Airlines said it plans to update its awareness training of Orthodox Jews and is reaching out to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle for help.

The airline issued the apology after conducting an internal review of Sunday’s incident, and said it wasn’t just the prayers that worried the flight crew.

"Flight attendants observed unusual behavior from three male passengers that continued during the four-hour flight,” Egan said in a statement issued late Monday.

“Out of concern for the safety of all of the passengers on board, the crew erred on the side of caution and authorities were notified. The crew did not realize at the time that the passengers were Orthodox Jews engaging in prayer ritual in Hebrew."

Egan said three specific instances that went beyond the men's prayers appeared to be unusual behavior to the crew:

Flight attendants instructed everyone to stay seated with their seatbelts fastened as the aircraft flew through turbulence shortly after takeoff. The three passengers disregarded repeated requests, however, and stood up several times to retrieve objects from their luggage in the overhead bin that the crew had never seen, including small black boxes fastened with what appeared to be black tape. The crew learned after the plane landed that these were tefillin boxes worn during the prayer ritual.

The men prayed aloud together in a language unfamiliar to the crew while wearing what appeared to be black tape and wires strapped to their forearms and foreheads and wires on their chests. Their actions and behavior made some other travelers and the crew uneasy. The three passengers responded, but provided very little explanation, to a flight attendant’s questions about the tefillin boxes and what they were doing.

Later in the flight, two of the three passengers visited the lavatories together while the third waited in the aisle and continually looked around the cabin and toward the flight deck door. Flight attendants thought he appeared anxious, as if he were standing guard.

During weekday prayers, some Orthodox Jewish men wear teflillin, or phylacteries - black leather straps wrapped around the left arm and around the forehead. The straps are connected to small boxes with tiny scrolls containing Jewish scriptures. Many Orthodox Jewish men also wear a prayer shawl called a tallit under their clothes, with knotted fringes at each of the four corners.

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement, explained the ritual further to CNN:

Tefillin are two leather black boxes with sacred parchment inside hand-crafted by a special scribe. The boxes are bound on the arm and head during prayer to spiritually align the mind and heart. I would encourage airlines to sensitize its employees to the salient effect of the tefillin ritual – and would be more than happy to put them in touch with local rabbis who can teach their personnel more about this tradition.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, this issue comes up occasionally. Last year after a similar incident, the ADL and Chabad sent a letter and a flier to all the major airlines explaining teflillin, said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s director of civil rights.

"We understand these prayer items may not be familiar. We gave them the suggestions that they do training about it. We had hoped they would include this in their training," Lauter said.

She said she is sending a letter to Alaska Airlines again to remind them.

Lauter said there is an onus on both parties in such a situation.

“The safety of passengers is paramount, and in this age of heightened security people are on edge. I think it’s understandable why people would have this reaction. There has to be a give and take too with the passengers. If they weren’t cooperating, that’s a different problem than religious sensitivity,” she said.

"Education is a two way street. We hope airlines will include this training with their staffs," Lauter said. “It also wouldn't hurt for passengers who are going to be participating in this ritual to alert the staff ahead of time.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • California • Faith Now • Prayer • United States

soundoff (1,457 Responses)
  1. don't clik here

    Attractive section of content. I simply stumbled upon your web site and in accession capital to say that I acquire actually enjoyed account your weblog posts. Anyway I will be subscribing for your feeds or even I achievement you access consistently quickly.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:23 am |
  2. Upon this rock

    Read what these three said, in esence 'the law of the land overides their right to pray just anywhere' most religions also
    adhere to this. We don't pray in the bank or grocery store outwardly to distract other people. Jesus said in Matthew the honest and sanctified prayer is done in your closet shut in where no one hears you except God. Usually the ones who need fifty million people standing in front of them and acting Holy are doing just that. Acting.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  3. Sleeping Beauty

    If you cant follow or understand the rules and guidelines that we all follow regardless of where you are going then there is going to be consequences especially when they were causing a scene and talked to by stewardess. I feel the airline did the right thing. And what is wrong with praying to your self or hey do it before you get on the plane or after you get off. There is no, "your this religion so you can do this or hey you are a different religion so go ahead and do what you need to do" regardless of everyone else. I am not against praying or religion but dont cause a scene where it affects everyone and causes concern.

    April 28, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  4. Saulright

    It's funny how so many people that hate God, or deny His existence, spend sooooo much time talking about Him. You'd think to them, it's like beating a dead horse. Why continually express your views of DISbelief? Why waste so much of your limited existence(if this life is all we've got), arguing against something you don't believe in? Unless maybe that is just you, fighting with yourself about whether or not you actually DO believe...

    April 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  5. avsecbostjan

    WHAT DO EUROPE, USA, CANADA, AUSTRALIA ETC. HAVE COMMON WITH LIBYA !!? DICTATORS vs DIC TRAITORS !!! What is worse !!!? LEARN TRUTH ABOUT LIBYA AND ARAB WORLD CIVIL RIOTS WHICH NEWS/MEDIA DOESN'T WANT YOU KNOW ABOUT OR SEE AND THEREFORE LIE JUST AS ORDERED BY USA FOREIGN DPT. OF AFFAIRS http://dictatorsvsdictraitors.wordpress.com/ – http://dictraitorsvsdictators.blogspot.com/ OR CONTINUE FOR FULL VERSION OF "DICTATOR OBAMA = STALIN = BUSH – USA = SOVIET UNION"..TO LEARN WHO, HOW, AND WHY RUINED YOU…FROM 911 TO WHITE AMERICAN REFUGEES IN EXILE SEEKING ASYLUM RIGHT NOW – WHO/WHY//HOW CREATED SCHOOL SHOOTINGS(Arizona incl.) – AUSTRALIAN FLOODS – BREAST FEEDING INSANITY PROTESTS – WIKILEAKS is CIA – HUMAN FLASH EATING MACHINE – TRUTH BEHIND COLD WAR CURTAIN – MULTICULTURALISM AND SWINE/PIG FLUE SYNDROME BROTHERHOOD – TRUTH ABOUT FACEBOOK(Facebooth) – EUROPEAN NATIONALIST PARTIES OR HEAVILY LOADED WITH LIES SINKING WRECKS – ESKIMO SARAH PALIN'S "BRIDGE TO NOWHERE" – NEWS/MEDIA OR SIMPLY BIG FAT VACUUM WORLD OF LIES/DEMENTIA !!? – THE REAL DON'T ASK DON'T TELL, BUT DIE !!! NWO POLITICAL PARTIES <- not there for you, but to seal your faith for their parliament pay$$ scale !!! http://avsecbostjan.wordpress.com/

    April 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  6. Guest

    Yea it figuers 3 jews fly cheap air limes. it a bar joke fright their.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  7. Mick Thompson

    This is a story, Why was the flight even able to fly to LAX? Four hours later the FEDs were called in!! Have we not learned any thing at all. The moment the flight crew got takenback by these three men they should have landed back in NM.

    Lets think if it was three Muslims. Then what? Im sure the plan's crew would have landed the plane well better yet not have even taken off from NM.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  8. Joe Redbear

    Sound's like a Holy War........ Good example of what religion can do....cause war's, fight's.... Hatred. And it all started from a dissagrement...and misunderstanding. Christians claim that this Jesus person died for our sin's? Right? THen you go to church...confess you done something wrong...and you say a bunch of prayers to be forgiving....next day you do it again. I don't get it. I was taught to learn from your mistake's. We use to be able to pray in school...now it offends people. We used to give thanks to our flag ....now that is offencive. Where doe's it end? We really don't even have freedom of speach. You tell someone they look nice? It's harassment. Tell your kid too shut up? Child abuse. I know im going on about different thing's...but it all comes down too this. We are all different...we make good and bad choices. Were human. We know what is good...we know what is bad. And we know if we hurt someones feeling's. Thease men were doing what they thought was right....maybe bad timing, but it was there choice. I would have said to them...please sit down you scaring the passengers. But i guess that will be taken away as well...our right to practice our riligion.

    April 13, 2011 at 5:41 am |
  9. Joe Redbear

    @ Reality....Good choice of word's.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:17 am |
  10. Joe Redbear

    I agree with some of you people....Man created thease many different religions. All i can say on the mannor is this. If your way works for you? makes you a good person? Then God Speed. But don't go around and bad mouth others. Is this what they teach you in your so called churches, and is this what so called christians do? Judge other's?. Not in my world. And as for thease men praying on a plane? It was wrong...... This day in age...after 9-11? Brilliant move guy's. Could of done all your praying before you got on the plane. But had to get onmake a scene...get everyone all excited thinking this is it...were gonna die. I would have done the same thing a gentalman said a bit ago.... Sit down...shut up.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:03 am |
  11. John

    People bless themselves all the time when a plane takes off and when it lands. As a muslim I'm not offended. I'm sure the Jewish people aren't either. If they are not harming anyone, let them do as they please. The key word here is compassion. If we all practiced it more, then maybe we wouldn't have so many issues.

    April 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  12. SB

    Religion, eh!? Heh heh heh.

    April 7, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  13. Squeezebox

    Why didn't the fools just schedule their travel for times when they weren't required to do the prayers? They have no right, religion or not, to frighten their fellow passengers like that!

    April 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Amber

      Oh yeah? No, actually you r wrong. They have every right to practice their faith when they are not hurting anybody physically. Because of paranoids like you, those three innocent people had to go through so much trouble. Get life and stop flying if you are such a paranoid.

      April 7, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  14. SmilinMike

    I would have told them to sit down and shut up. Regardless of their religious affiliation, creating a disturbance on a plane in these times is not a good idea, and I fly a lot. As a passenger, I'm wary and watchful, and I want my flights to be uneventful. Getting passengers scared and flight attendants on guard is not a good situation. As a Christian, I would tell other Christians creating a disturbance by praying loudly to sit down and shut up too, so it wouldn't matter if it's Christian or Jew, Muslim, or whatever. Sit down, stay quiet, and respect other's rights to an uneventful and quiet flight.

    April 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Amber

      They have the freedom of practicing their beliefs like everybody else in this great country of ours. They are not hurting anybody. Don't fly if you are so scared of people looking and acting a little different from yourself.

      April 7, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  15. Ming.room

    well, to be fair to them, atleast they didn't shoot them down thinking they were moose...... But seriously folks, its friggin Alaska!! palin country!, you'll get into trouble if your anything less than Methodist

    April 4, 2011 at 5:12 am |
  16. mohamed

    Thank ALLAH it was not muslims,or the six o clock news would read 3 muslims try to blow up a plane or some dumb remarks.or worse they would be sent to gitmo forever and water boarded.

    April 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • tready

      You mean like the guy that was innocently trying to light his shoe?

      April 5, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  17. Arnold Ziffle

    I am an Orthodox Jew and strap Teffilin to myself in the same manner that the alleged Orthodox passengers did. However, they messed up and their actions were wrong! There is a concept in Jewish law called Dina Demalchuta Dina...the law of the land is the law and takes precedence over many aspects of Jewish law in many situations. That means that given the fact that the crew on the plane is empowered by federal law to decide when people sit, stand etc..., once they told the praying passengers to sit down, they had to sit down under Jewish law. Their act that both ignored the instructions of authority and frightened and inconvenienced other passengers was a violation of Jewish law. It was an act of ignorance, selfishness and arrogance.
    There are 2 major concepts that they either never picked up along the way or they chose to forget. The first is that actions are supposed sanctify G-d's name and not degrade it and that first and foremost as Orthodox Jews, we put "life" in front of almost anything else. We don't cause others pain or worry or put peoples' lives at risk. That is JOB 1 for Orthodox Jews.

    April 1, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • chris

      I like your response. I think it is fair and shows wisdom. May the God of Israel bless you and make His face to shine upon you!

      April 12, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  18. James

    Come on you guys–You had to know it would cause a problem–Don't get on the Airplane and do something like that for crying out loud–Use some common sense–

    March 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      James wrote: "Use some common sense"

      I'm afraid that common sense and the practice of religion are difficult to reconcile...

      March 31, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Herome

      stupid guys thought that people would understand what they were doin.. crazy ppl

      April 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Tom Jones

      Common sense is an uncommon virtue

      April 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • ldean50

      I call this "fishing for a lawsuit" . . .premeditated behavior meant to invoke fear, authorities and then you can turn around and sue the airline . . ."We're rich I tell you. Rich!"

      April 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • krenz

      I agree. They could have at least explained what they were doing when asked.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  19. unbelieverable

    REALLY!?!?!?! Why is this confusing...oh yeah, it involves religion.....LOL Get over it, then we can work together to solve the world's problems. Need to focus on what we agree on, not we we disagree on...what we have in common, not differences...We are doomed, as a civilization until we get this through our thick heads........ DONE!

    March 30, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.