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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. the

    the three "businessmen" should have reimbursed the airline and all passengers for the time they wasted and the anguish they caused, say, the cost of that flight for everyone on board

    and then not been allowed to continue on the flight

    only because they are of this particular flavor of religion do they get a free pass

    March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  2. Swissdawg

    Alaska DOES NOT need to apoligize to unruly passengers. They should be arrested and prosecuted as it is the law. Lets stop making compremises to minorities.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  3. Aaron

    I am afraid to make any statements about how anyone about to get out of their seat and pray loudly should reconsider... I am afraid to say anything because I don't want to be labelled an anti-semite. Which seems to be what happens if you accuse someone who is Jewish of maybe, possibly having done something wrong...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  4. Anand

    This is absurd. These sort of religious practices that trouble others or makes people uncomfortable should not be done in public. If that's the case, Muslims will have to do namaz 5 times a day. So can they just get off the seat and start praying or can a Hindu just start burning camphor (it can be said as their religious rights).People no matter how religious they are should respect others.Even if the airlines knows about these rituals, does mean the passengers should have to take it.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  5. eron orr

    I thought it was against the law to refuse to comply with airline attendants' requests. To refuse to buckle your seat belt during turbulence could endanger others, not just yourself. When your body hits the ceiling and falls, it could fall on another passenger. Turbulence can be a very violent, life threatening thing when passengers aren't belted in. As far as the religious paraphenalia, I wonder if it shouldn't be left at home. Can other passengers set up altars with their symbols, or is it only Jewish orthodox passengers that are allowed to do that?

    Flying on a plane could become very "interesting" if other passengers behaved in similar fashion to these.
    That should be the test of whether the behavior is allowed. What if everyone did it?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  6. Lisa-M

    I don't want to hear ANYBODY spouting that crap during a flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  7. Kelly

    Chris R – do you actually think people have not been doing "dry runs" for years? Also, as a Jew myself, I am very much aware of the rituals, not all, but most and may I also add that in light of your knowledge of size...just exactly how big is a box-cutter??...I'm just asking
    And by the way, as it was not mentioned in the story, I'm guessing that the three gentlemen were in fact proven to be legitimate Rabbis, in which case I would think they would understand the general feeling that would be created among people and would have taken the appropriate time/measures to ensure/calm the flight attendants. A simple and thoughtful thing to have done. How sad that we are bickering on here rather than focusing on the solution rather than the problem. Sad indeed.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  8. Ajhsys

    That was a great article. It has now told the terrorists exactly how to hide a weapon and get it on an airplane. They just need to dress as orthodox Jews and carry little boxes and straps (with the wires hidden in them. I sure hope the TSA figures this out. My guess is that they do not require the boxes to be opened at inspection because of their religious importance.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • speak not

      d@mnit, if we would just stop giving those hapless terrorists the answers! now they might attack. oh wait...

      March 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  9. calvin

    I respect the various religious beliefs, BUT, safety comes first ALWAYS. These three passengers could have been arrested for not following the flight crew's instructions. This can also be considered interfering with a flight crew, which is a federal offense. If they want to pray in their language, that's perfectly fine, but they should have waited. People can't always do the things they want when they want. Alaska Airlines should not apologize for anything.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  10. Lori

    Kids get kicked off planes for crying and these idiots should of as well!!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  11. minnesott

    What next? Baptists will sing Halleluja behind you, scaring the sht out of you?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  12. Toronto Guy

    Your supernatural beliefs of the invisible man in the sky do not belong in the public place.

    Practice your irrational beliefs at home

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

      agreed!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Sean

      Where exactly should tolerance be practiced?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  13. Curleyg

    Black boxes with what appears to be wires strapped to their forearms and forehead?
    II've got two words for these dudes. "LETS ROLL"

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

    Not everyone is familiar with Jewish rituals. It's not the airlines' fault that the flight attendants were unaware of this ritual. There are just too many religions out there for everyone to know all the details about every one of them. The passengers should have told the attendants what they were doing. Quite frankly, there are rules. If you're not following them on a plane (such as getting up when you're not supposed to), then you need to be told what is appropriate, and if you don't cooperate, then you face the consequences. It's a law actually. Many people get all incensed about religious freedom when it's just unnecessary.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Agree, they really didn't help themselves here but it seems to be par for the course for some of their ilk. Tolerance goes both ways.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  15. Tim

    It's simple. Get on the plane, sit down, shut up, and stay seated. If you have to pray, pray in your head to yourself. Don't bother everyone else with your religious mumbo jumbo.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Concerned Person

      Not all airlines have problems with people praying or doing specific religious rituals on board. I'm positive that it is ok to do so on EL AL airlines. I'm also sure that specific muslim rutual are allowed on board Egyptair or Saudia Arabian Airlines. So do not be so quick to judge.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  16. Lawrence

    Mathew 6:5-8. The most important message in all of monotheism. Congress should legislate against any overt displays of religious rituals aboard all public transportation vehicles. Anyone who attempts to purchase a ticket must agree to adhere to this law or else they will not be allowed to purchase the ticket. The only 'ritual' that will be allowed is to silently and privately read a 'holy' book. (Fiddling with beads is probably ok, too) Monotheistic madness and mass 'god' delusion are destroying humanity. Enough is enough!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  17. Jeff S

    People blame the politicians for the current state of America. I blame the citizens. Citizens that have forgotten the sacrifices made to ensure America was a beacon of Freedom for the world. Citizens that have forgotten that freedom is a right endowed to us by our creator. Citizens that have forgotten what America means. Citizens that are OK with sacrificing our enlisted mean to the cause of Freedom, but hide in fear instead of standing up and showing the world...that while you can take our lives, you will never take our Freedom.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  18. Fast Hands

    The gentlemen who caused the disturbance should be apologizing, not the airlines.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  19. Anonymous

    Perhaps I can put matters in context for you. You see, I believe in Leprechauns.

    I believe that the Leprechaun King loves me and hears my prayers. He intervenes in my life periodically by saving me from various ills. All I have to do is think to myself and he reads my mind and answers my prayers. He loves me and when I die, provided I have lived a good life, I will go to Leprechaun Heaven, where I will live happily ever after with all other humans who have ever led good lives.

    I know there is not a lot of evidence to support my beliefs, but that is just the point. The Leprechaun King wants us to have “faith,” so he never reveals himself. To make an unambiguous appearance and settle once and for all the question of his existence would deprive us of free will and, even though he is all knowing, he would not know who his true believers were. In fact, I believe that the Leprechaun King is “beyond understanding”. He is “outside the Universe” and any time I am faced with something about my Leprechaun belief that makes no sense, I don’t dare question it, I just close my mind and tell myself that "the Leprechaun King moves in mysterious ways" or that my mind is too small to understand the greatness of the Leprechaun King. These are satisfying answers to me.

    Some people, called “atheists,” are skeptical of my belief in the Leprechaun King. They point out many inherent contradictions and unsupported assumptions that underwrite my belief in Leprechauns. But, they can’t prove he doesn’t exist, so he must exist. They also can't definitively explain where the Universe came from or how life on Earth first started, so it must be the Leprechaun King.

    And so what! Even if I am wrong, and go my whole life believing in nonexistent Leprechauns, I have lost nothing. However, if they are wrong, the Leprechaun King will send them to hell to burn forever in the presence of the Evil Ground Troll.

    Am I convincing you to believe in Leprechauns yet?

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

      What if I worship the evil ground troll? Is that okay?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Fedup16

      Hahahahahahahahaha- I love it!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Kati

      I want to see the Leprechaun bible that was printed and distributed over 6 billion times and the historic evidence of all the events described in it. Then I will consider believing in your king.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Kati

      As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.

      Joshua 24:15

      March 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  20. Kevin Donnelly

    This religious chanting and unusual behavior is not acceptable on an airplane, where security concerns have grown of of real tragedies. We should not have to train flight crews about Jewish or any other rituals, because there are hundreds or thousands of them throughout the world. Rather, people that fly on commercial airlines should refrain from ritualistic practices of ANY kind for the few hours that they're in an airplane or any other closely packed environment, such as a train or bus.
    Kudos to the airline crew for responding to some behavior that they did not understand, and was concerning other passengers about their safety and survival!
    Crews should not have to learn all the different rituals in the world!

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

      There's nothing scary about tefillin. The orthodox hassidics did nothing wrong. The rest of the crew were morons.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Joel

      I AGREE!!!!!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Agreed

      Couldn't agree more

      March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • deadend

      +1 on that, well said. No one should be holding ANY rituals on an airplane. We have got to stop giving in on so many things when it comes to public safety! The safety of ALL on the plane has to take the priority here, not the desire of the individual! Wake up people!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Well said, Kevin!

      So well said, Kevin. I couldn't agree more. Further, if these gentlemen happened to be Muslim, the airline would not be apologizing, and hardly anyone would be challenging the airline's in-flight reaction. Where's the fairness in that?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:44 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.