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. jv7777

    Sounds like a corny joke by Peter Griffin:
    ok...ok... there's these 3 jews on a plane... and they all start prayin' when one of em says to the other one..... i gotta pee.... jejejejejeeeeee. Hey Lois ... get me a beea!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  2. Doug

    People like this are why there need to be air marshalls. Arrest them, and if it turns out they're not doing anything physically dangerous, lock them up in a different part of the plane so they're not scaring the pants off of the rest of the passengers. You don't have a right to do that kind of nonsense on a plane, especially without explaining yourself first.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  3. art

    Wow, i wonder if they'd have apologized if these were muslims praying in arabic.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  4. P

    It was the responsibility of the Orthodox Jewish men to have given a heads-up to the crew about what they were about to do. That would have prevented the whole mess.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • speak not

      no, only following the rules would have. heads-up or no, when it's time to sit down, EVERYBODY has to do it. the end.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  5. Toph

    Why apologize? I would have run them in if It was a Christian, a Muslim or any other religion. There's a time and place for prayer, and it's not on a plane. Personally, with how evil religion is, I'd definitely think that the person was about to take down the plane. No matter what religion is was.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  6. SlapStick

    Nobody apologized to me when I was stopped from sacrificing a chicken.

    Yes, my example is silly, but nevertheless, the point is valid. Either everyone will respect others religious beliefs and rituals and allow them to be performed in public or all the religious people will respect those who are not as dedicated and perform the rituals in designated houses of worship. I vote the latter.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  7. john

    I recall the head of DHS telling us "if you see something, say something". I guess the crew was just doing what was asked. Thanks DHS I feel safer already!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  8. certaingroupsbelievetheyruletheworkd


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


      March 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Simon C

    If people need to pray during travel, they should use transportation methods from the time the praying was invented.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • speak not

      I like it.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  10. jv7777

    This is a weird story to begin with 3 Jews going from Mexico City to Alaska...

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

      At least someone is paying attention...

      March 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • speak not

      see the movie "holy rollers" and you'll get it.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  11. amy del

    How did they pass the check points with those boxes ? Nobody questioned them before getting on board? They should be instructed at the check point as a precaution.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  12. Joe

    great, now our sensitive little nation will be overly forgiving to orthodox jews that maybe, just maybe the terrorist will take note as start dressing up like them. I mean if the they get preferential treatment and don't have to follow the rules of the air then hell, maybe I'll start dressing up like them too.

    that a load of crap!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  13. theworldrevolvesaroundjews

    Get over yourselves.

    Follow the rules that you largely created to control the rest of us.....

    March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  14. MuzziesAreBums

    No reason to be afraid of them so far they are not Muzzies.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  15. Brian

    "If you really feel the need, you should say your prayers either before or after the flight, or do so silently while in your seat."..........

    When I feel the need for prayer I take a laxative and it has the same effect.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • roger smith

      that's because you're going to h e l l

      March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  16. antidote

    At "unknown."
    You are entirely ridiculous. We cannot live our lives in fear. We were attacked, yes. I am EXTREMELY offended by your statement about how if they'd lost anyone in 911, they'd understand. Who's to say they didn't lose anyone in 9/11? They're American, are they not? Even the Muslim population lost hundreds of people.
    YES, they should have alerted the flight attendants of their activities, but I do not think that they need to rid prayer from the planes all together. To those that say that there is a time and place for prayer, I say that there is a time and a place for YOUR kind of prayer. A Christian can sit in his seat and pray and no one would say a thing. Well, I would, but it wouldn't be taken as seriously as another complaint. Honestly, after they were finished, wouldnt' they have just gone back to their seats? Yeah, maybe they should have waited, but I do NOT see the purpose in calling customs and questioning them for terrorism.

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

      Bingo and amen.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  17. minnesott

    And I think voodooists should be allowed to sacrifice live chickens sitting next to you.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • ncarn8ntt

      Agreed. Where does it stop? The insensitivity was the faithful's failure to inform the crew and passengers in advance about what they were going to do.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  18. werd

    That's nothing. I flew Egypt air in the late 90s from Tokyo to the Philippines, and the in flight tvs broadcasted a Islamic prayer before take off. " Alla-hu Ahkba-r" . There were still smoking seats in the back as well. haha

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

      You sure it was Allahu Ackbar, or was it Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim? That seems more appropriate for a Muslim pilot to say before flying a plane.

      The 2nd prayer invokes the name of God the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, and is an invocation that many devout Muslims make before beginning an endeavor (like driving or taking a turn at-bat). It's similar to, though somewhat different from, the Roman Catholic habit of making the sign of the cross as a short prayer to dedicate one's actions to God and ask for His blessing and protection.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  19. JR

    With all due respect to the many religions of the world; the time and place for conducting a prayer ritual is most definitely not while in-flight on a commercial airliner. If you really feel the need, you should say your prayers either before or after the flight, or do so silently while in your seat. With religious fanaticism being so closely tied to terrorism these days, common sense and consideration for others should prevail over religious rituals. Alaska Airlines shouldn’t have apologized for their actions during this so called “incident”.

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

      Where's the trust?

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

      Completely true. Common sense seems to have been thrown out the window in this country.

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

      In 100% agreement on this one.

      I could understand if the plane was going down for these folks to tie little black boxes on their arms, etc. Other than that, they should pray before or after.

      I mean, heck, I always wait on the chicken sacrifice until I get home, out of consideration of others beliefs.

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

      Well said.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • David

      hmm... I've never heard of a jewish plane bomber... *rolls eyes

      March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Courtney H

      I could not have said this better myself. Totally agree with you!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Dave

      Actually, after reading the perspective of the crew, I can't help but wonder why the plane wasn't landed and boarded by FBI immediately. Those 3 men were simply stupid. They should've known better. I have to fly on AK Air in a few months and would like to be sure that they will act properly if this situation comes up again.

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

      Completely agree. Too many security issues in this country to let something like this go unnoticed. Alaska Airlines should no have apologized. They were looking out for the safety of the passengers on that flight.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • speak not

      it's pure arrogance.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • roger smith

      My thoughts exactly. Thanks. Well put.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • comilla

      So u want to decide when to pray. Nice. I am a muslim supporting the jews to pray wherever and whenever they want to and same goes to u 2.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  20. minnesott

    I suggest Jehova's Witnesses should be allowed to solicit on airplanes.

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

      I'm not surprised at how ignorant Americans are: almost anyone who reads, travels and watches the news would have realized that they were orthodox Jews praying. Nothing surprises me anymore!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:45 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.