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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. sieben

    Amazing how quickly the "anti" word has to pop up here. The only grouping with their own specific term for victimization. Get over yourselves.

    No one no matter what religion or affiliation should engage in any kind of prayer or chant out loud like this on a plane or airport. Just plain stupid on their part.

    People of this grouping purport to be so educated and cultured. Then it goes without saying that they should not have done this. Very simple.

    the only apology needed here is From the gentlemen in question TO the other passengers and the airline.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  2. Cyberwave

    John Roberson, YES. Best comment of all time.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  3. ????

    WOW...IT'S AMAZING HOW DIFFERENT PEOPLE FEEL AND THINK ABOUT RELIGION!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  4. Annabelle

    Sounds to me like the three men are setting up the airline for a lawsuit. The ignorance is in the three men who must have realized they were causing nervousness in their fellow passengers, not to mention that they IGNORED REPEATED REQUESTS TO STAY SEATED, and FAA violation. So, they were not only ignorant, they BROKE THE LAW!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  5. Lauren

    I don't care what religion you are, sit down and buckle up means sit down and buckle up. This is more about people of all races and creeds thinking that rules don't apply to them. Cell phones, texting and reality tv are turning us into a rude society where people often exhibit no sense of what it means to be part of a society...from the movie theater to the grocery store, I encounter rudeness everyday and it isn't relegated to any race or religion.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  6. peterb34

    What a racist you are ... you should be a ashamed of yourself. Then on the other hand perhaps you are probably proud to be an ignorant person. Be careful - somebody might treat you the same and then you will know how it feels.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • sieben

      pathetic

      absolutely no racism happened here

      but some will try to inject that into the issue

      pathetic

      March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  7. john

    Just because anyone one group is offended by the security precautions taken dozen't mean that they are being marginalized, or that the crew was being insensitive. True security should be universally applied – strange is strange, no matter the creed. If you have a problem with that stay on the ground or lobby for a change in airline security, but don't introduce special 'training' for airline crews. Do you really want your flight attendants grappling with Buddhist mantras, Christian tongues, satanic blood-letting? Maybe all religious groups should take responsibility, scrutinize their rituals and work harder to be sensitive to those around them.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  8. Aaron

    Alaska Airlines should not be apologizing to those morons, those morons should be apologizing to everyone on the flight. Their actions are 100% inexcusable.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  9. Name*Tony canada

    Alaska airlines is in deep doodoo

    March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  10. Bo

    Next time I fly, I'm going to sing through the entire flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Beebo

      Freebird!!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      Sounds great as long as you are ok with wearing flexcuffs.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • vor

      Encore! Encore!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  11. Mark

    Too bad they didn't have a few of those whirling devishes on board as well..people woudl be dancing in the aisles. I'm not the brightest person in the world, but I've seen Fiddler enough times to know when people are conducting a prayer ritual.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  12. Sebastian

    Diversity my a_ _ !

    If I had been on the flight and these guys acted this way, I`d have jumped them.

    I`m sorry but these Jews should have been considerate enough of others to know that in a post 9-11 world, somebody would view their actions as a threat.

    I don`t care if they are yelling "Allah-Akbar" or "Hallelujiah" , there is a time and place not to do so.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  13. unknown

    In response to DRB's comment "When was the last time an Orthodox Jew blew himself up in a plane full of innocent civilians? Hmmm... All you people who are so quick to condemn these men are completely clueless and uneducated."
    No matter what, there is a time and place for prayers and we all need to be alert and aware of our surroundings. We have been attacked before, who is to say we will not be attacked again. We cannot take any chances and if you can't understand that then maybe you shouldn't fly! We have our rules and laws in the USA, obey them or stay out! We could at any given time be attacked by any color, race, etc! Why should we let our guard down because they are jewish? WE CANNOT TRUST ANYONE! DO YOU NOT GET IT??? THEY WERE TOLD TO STAY SEATED AND THEY DISOBEYED! THEY SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO FLY AGAIN. THEY COULD HAVE SAID PRAYERS IN THE BATHROOM OF THE AIRPORT FOR ALL WE CARE, BUT DO NOT DISOBEY ON AN AIRPLANE. Maybe if these people lost loved ones in 9-11, maybe they would understand. OBEY THE USA RULES AND LAWS AND WE CAN ALL GET ALONG...PERIOD

    March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Boheme

      Not so long ago an orthodox jew entered a mosque and mowed down a congregation of more than 30 – men, women, children. He was a US-born doctor Baruch Goldstein, google his name and see for youself..

      March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  14. tensor

    There's a time and a place for public religious practices; an airplane isn't it.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Margaret

      @tensor, it depends on how quickly the plane is plunging earthwards.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  15. Mrs. M

    Why is it supposed to be OK for ANYONE to ignore the instructions of the crew to remain seated, with safety belts secured, during turbulent flight. And, WHY is it supposed to be OK for ANYONE to pray aloud in a crowded airplane. Guaranteed, if anyone else on-board that flight understood Hebrew, just the fact that these men were praying aloud would be enough to panic other flyers. You'd better believe if I was on an airplane, in flight, and I stood up and began preaching a sermon to the other passengers – all hell would break lose. Not to mention the atheists and agnostics, who in our litigious era, would be filing law suits against the airline for allowing the blatant practice of religion on-board any flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  16. jewluvah

    Get a clue! These guys were totally baiting the airline people to see if they'd react. Everyone is so politcally correct about reacting to Muslims, I think they were doing this intentionally, I really do.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Mark

      I can't believe that it was their first time on an airplane. I don't know if this was a common practice for them and if they've engaged in that prayerful behavior before or if this was a first. It seems they should have been more aware of their surroundings. Maybe they were trying to start a different sort of mile high club. lol

      March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  17. religion doesn't belong on planes

    They should not be praying out loud on a plane – end of story. What if they were wearing burkas? People who do this only do it get a rise out of people or they intend to sue. It's wrong on so many levels. If you can't go with out praying then drive your car or don't travel at all. Your actions reflect on everyone around you in a tin can 30,000 feet in the air.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  18. Name*Shawn

    This is why this country is so messed up if I were on That plane I would have tackled those guys and probably kicked there asses not because there Jewish or because they were praying but because they were not even sensitive enough to tell the passengers they only did it to call attention and to try to get a lawsuit

    March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  19. programmergirl

    If they could not bother to EXPLAIN what they were doing AND they disregarded the flight attendants' instructions, they got what they deserved. Being a member of a particular religion does NOT give you the right to ignore flight safety rules. And unless (like the Geico commercial), they've been living under a rock, they should be aware of the heightened security measures and be willing to let the flight attendants know what they were doing.

    As a side note, why did these people feel the need to do this right then and there on the plane? God is an extremely patient deity and don't believe He would have been offended if they had waited until after they got off the plane to pray.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Mia

      You're asumming the God you worship is the same as the God other people worship.

      You're assuming that they adhere to set times out of a fear of God and not because this adherence helps them to remember that God is central to their lives, moreso than other things. A practice like this is no different than the practice of meditating at certain times of the day, regardless of what is going on, in order to keep in mind that there are more important things in life.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  20. Observer

    Alaska Airlines should not have to apologize that they have ignorant passengers. If your religion requires you to pray out loud on an airline flight, then maybe you should stay at home to pray.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • MASTRODAMUS

      I wouldn't go as far as to tell them to stay at home and do it, but maybe let a flight attendant know ahead of time that you are going to do so.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Patriot

      Amen. Not to mention they were disregarding crew instructions to stay seated. I don't blame a single person aboard that was scared out of their minds. I would have been too.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Get Real!

      It is even worse than just chanting! I would have been scared out of my mind and probably would have attacked them! They stuck black boxes on their head and their arm that looked like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefillin

      March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Diane

      Maybe the airline should apologize to the remaining passangers. They had to sit and listen to them. What about their rights? Next thing you know we will have mass and revivals in the airplane. Rules need to be enforced to respect the privacy of all passengers.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Mia

      Yeah. Everyone who doesn't share YOUR practices should stay out of sight, right?

      America – the land of the right to the freedom of religion (unless it's different than mine).

      March 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • sally

      @maria- "Everyone who doesn't share your belief should stay out of sight"

      Maria- if I am at a store, or on the street, I am free to leave if I do not like it. If I am locked on an airplane with these people, I have no such rights!!! Just as they have the right TO religion, I have the right FROM religion. And I would be very, very resentful of having to listen to it whilst strapped into an airline seat 50,000 feet in the air.

      March 22, 2011 at 1:48 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.