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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 • Prayer • United States

soundoff (1,457 Responses)
  1. Patrick

    Sure, sic the FBI on them for SAYING PRAYERS, then try to absolve yourselves by apologizing and promising to offer training to your employees. I'm sure that makes everythig fine for the three men who were humiliated and treated like criminals FOR PRAYING!

    Take a guess which airline I will NEVER fly on.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Billy

      They were criminals for not remaining in their seat with the belt fastened like they were instructed to do.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • whatever

      Billy, youre an idiot. it is not a crime to leave ones seat on a plane...being an idiot such as yourself should be a crime..but sadly you idiots are allowed to reproduce....sadly its all your sad country has become..full of small minded, fearful idiots who should 911...911..911....

      March 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  2. Wil

    Just a question, did they have to conduct these prayer ritual while traveling on an aircraft?
    Could they have done so before or after their travel?
    If they were performing the same actions while in the terminal (retireving small black boxes with tape, attaching them to their bodies and praying in a "foreign" language I'm sure airport security may have reacted in a similar fashion.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Bubba Metzia

      Putting on tefillin is usually done three times a day, so because of the length of the flight that is probably why it was done while in-flight. I don't see why it would really be any bigger of an issue than a Catholic praying in Latin with rosaries, other than that Americans may be more used to seeing rosaries. It would have been a good idea for them to tell the flight attendant what they were doing before they did though, so there wouldn't be a misconception like there was.

      March 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  3. Common Sence

    Idiots! I

    March 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  4. mat

    This is the equivalent to saying the word "bomb" on the plane. You may not be breaking any rules, but don't hold it against me if I tackle your sorry as*.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • just_another_reader

      i can imagine you hauling your fat carcass down the aisle – hold 'em so's I can tackle them! makes me laugh...

      March 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  5. Billy

    Seems to me that if they removed their seat belts after being told to remain seated that they were interferring with a flight crew. Which last time I checked is an arrestable offense.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Colfen

      Haul them off the plane!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  6. SmarterHuman

    I'm Jewish and thinks these three are idiots. I'm all for religious freedom, but not on an airplane.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Colfen

      A voice of reason!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  7. Steve

    It's stuff like this that gets me. Common sense tells you that most people probably aren't going to know what you are doing. Why weren't these men proactive by explaining the prayers that they would be doing during the flight. If you educate others they will understand what is going on when it happens and handle the situation better.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  8. OnanismO

    Why is an airline having to apologize? Anybody that wasn't born yesterday who thinks they can get away with PRAYER anywhere near a fu-cking airplane these days deserves whatever they get!!!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Chris R

      I often pray the rosary during take off and landing. Should I also be stopped? I mean, I am holding a set of beads and touching them. They are on a metal chain. What if they were made of explosives! I should be shot by the Air Marshals for having the temerity to pray. Oh wait, is Christian prayer allowed because you understand it? Is that the difference?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • highfive

      My mother would do the rosary in flight but she 1. Would pray silently 2. Listened to flight attendants instructions and followed them unlike the characters in this story. Chris tefillins & phylacteries are large at least 100X bigger than a rosary & do look very strange to the vast majority of the population. Why didn't they fully explain themselves fully to the flight attendants, why didn't the buckle up when instructed to, why did they all visit the bathroom together...? Though I know about tefillins & phylacteries doesn't mean I want to be subjected to their unusual religious practices. I have nothing against any religion but if your going to make a religious spectacle of yourself please do it in an appropriate venue, which an Alaska Air flight is not...

      March 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • highfive

      I must add that I find it refreshing to see from a number of Jewish people who have responded that the behavior of these 3 individuals was out of line. For me it is not a matter of religious intolerance but of safety (disregarding a flight attendants instruction (repeatedly)) and respect for others who just might happen not to be an Orthodox Jew and don't want be caught up in their religious practices. Freedom is a 2-way street, the freedom to practice a religion of your choice – but this freedom should not come at others expense who would want nothing to do with it.

      March 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Eddie

    I think there should be some respect among the Orthodox community not to share the crap out of their fellow passengers. Sensitivity training or not, when people start chanting while strapping items to their foreheads and congregating in the aisles is just plan scary for everyone.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  10. Kori Covrigaru

    I assumed at first glance that this was an issue with Southwest due to the photo at the top. I suggest switching that photo out with an Alaska Airlines plane, not Southwest. Southwest employees are much smarter than this.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • David M

      Nah. Now you're asking CNN to get the details right.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  11. Liberty Queen

    No one should disturb other passengers with loud praying. These boys should apologize for their ridiculous behavior, for disobeying flight attendants and for causing a scare among passengers.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  12. Jerry Vinter

    I am willing to bet if these were Sikhs or Hindus, they would have been escorted off the plane and no apology would have been necessary.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • seriously_what_were_u_thinking

      Had this been a brown-skinned person wearing any sort of headgear like a small round cap or a turban and have any amount of facial hair, even the God that he prayed to would not have been able to save him. But then such are the post 9/11 realities.
      Oh and that one about the apology to any such person ... its anyone's guess.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  13. miken

    Its outrageous – these jews should have been arrested. If i was on the plane with my family i would have knocked their lights out. Most any man with guts and common sense would.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • yesheddo

      knocked their lights out? wow, really? Could you be any more ignorant? Nice example to set for your family.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • One World - Many People

      I bet you've never done anything that orthodox Jews would think is outrageous.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • just_another_reader

      sure you would, right after getting an extra-large diaper from the flight attendant to clean up your weewee.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  14. WaitWhat

    I don't think they should apologize to the ones praying. I'm not prejudice in any way to any religion but really you do this on a plane. What the hell do you expect?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Troy

    All for freedom, but there is a time and aplace for prayer, and this was infringing on the rest of the plane. These men should have taken another plane. Or waited for prayer. I am sure God would allow them in heaven if they prayed late. A little common sense goes a long way.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Colfen

      Total lack of common sense is the problem.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  16. pointless1

    Nothing says fear mongering like being religiously unaware......

    March 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  17. DWT

    So, what's the point? If they were Muslims it would have been nothing to apologize about, because they'd merit closer scrutiny? Or, cutting the other direction, should the jihadists now say that their next gambit should be to go disguised as Orthodox Jews? Their behaviors were out of the ordinary, plain and simple.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Steve

      The objects had leather straps NOT WIRES! I guess you can't read!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  18. John

    boohoo. They are lucky not be shot and now the airline is apologizing to them. You don't have wires hanging around your neck and tied to things around your chest and you do not use the bathroom together. What were they doing in there. Trying to join the mile high club? and the third one stand in the isle.
    I can bet if these were Muslims, they would have been arrested and airline defending its actions.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • sara

      they don't have wires hanging off their necks or things tied to their chests. please be informed before you make a comment like that

      March 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  19. Charles Darwin

    Why should the airlines apologize. It is those imbeciles who should apologize. If they need to conduct a loud religious ritual in flight, did they not think it might be appropriate to tell the airline crew what was going on beforehand and not to be alarmed. Considering post 9/11, I'm leary of any religious fundamentalist nuts.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Ren

      Amen brother!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Right Time and Place for Everything

      I absolutely agree. I do not think the airline should've apologized. The crew members acted accordingly given the strange situation taking place with not just one person, but three! Prayer is fine, but does not need to be potrayed in a way that can be likened to religious fanaticism. That is definitely enough to upset anyone, let alone those on board an airplane.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • pourquoi pas

      Agreed.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Colfen

      Well said!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  20. Kevin

    My only concern is, if all that was going on, why did they keep flying to LA? I would have landed the plane and had them removed at the closest airport. They should have explained what they were doing.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • David M

      You can't just stop at the nearest airport. Once a plane takes off they have to burn off fuel before they can land. You cannot land a passenger plane that has a full load of fuel. So their options were to dump it or burn it off on the way to LA.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • RL Turn

      Ridiculous. How about you pray aloud BEFORE boarding the plane. If every body expressed their religious beliefs on a plane after repeatedly being asked to take their seat, no plane would ever get off the ground. I know Penecostals that speak in tongues. Would the airline apologize to them for their Holy Ghost filled expression?
      How about Santería a religion of West African and Caribbean origin or a Muslim observing call to prayer on a flight.? I'm sure none of these religions would have been given a benefit of the doubt but a bullet from an Air Marshal instead!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Patrick

      They shouldn't HAVE to explain what they are doing, you idiot!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • davethecanuck

      You are a complete moron patrick... shouldn't have to explain!... are you really that stupid!?

      So just because an individual is having a chit chat with God, to hell with the rights and sensitivites of everyone else?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Colfen

      Absolutely.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:00 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.