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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. Brian

    This looks to me this was engineered to get a rise out of the public. Either this was done for attention or a monetary reason or both. Either way Israel and the Jewish faith gets way to much tax money going to the Jewish state and to much attention is paid to Jewish issues. This goes for the Arabs and Islam too. To be fair. Before you say I am a biased Christian I am not religious at all.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  2. adii

    They couldn't tell the difference between jews and terrorists? idiots.

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

      Who?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Brian

      Both are centered from the whacky middle east. Go figure.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  3. Greg

    They should have been arrested for stupidity at the very least. Not because of what they did, but for believing that prayer actually does anything in the first place.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  4. bob

    Why don't they pray before boarding or after landing? We have to religious rights but we have the right be respectful of those around us.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  5. Bill Lettelleir

    I am a non-Jew who has lived in israel for over 20 years. The orthodox sect are an arrogant group who have no respect or regard for other religions. These three from the Alaska flight should face federal charges, buT as we know this will not happen.

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

      There's more than one orthodox sect out there... And they're no more or less of "an arrogant group who have no respect or regard for other religions" than any other group of fundamentalist believers. (Heard any interviews with Franklin Graham lately?)

      Most of those who were indoctrinated in a fanatical obeisance to some super-human deity tend to believe that their way is the only way. The fact that they're all based on ancient fairy tales never interferes with their outlook.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  6. Laura

    These were MEXICAN Orthodox Jews, people. There is a language barrier and they probably didn't understand how their actions could be perceived (whereas American Jews would). That being said, seeing Orthodox Jewish men praying isn't that uncommon, particularly if you watch international news.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Brian

      I dont buy that excuse. Mexican or not they should still have common sense.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Reg

      What religion they were practicing is irrevelant – it's the MANNER in which they were practicing that is against airline policy, for good reason.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  7. James

    The problem I have with this is why they had to have a loud, disruptive prayer session in an enclosed aircraft? This couldn't have been done before or after their flight? And for them to refuse to explain themselves once they started is also unacceptable. If they decided this prayer was necessary in the middle of a movie at the theater, they would have to leave.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Colfen

      Amen to that!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  8. gaman

    Airline should have never appolized. I don't see anything they have done wrong. What a stupidity that these three folks are doing unusual stuff given that this nation faced what happened on 09/11. I am just laughing that Rabbi suggested to "TEACH" airline staff. This is a height of foolishnes. you might not aware of all rituals various regions in this world has and some of them may require to cut snake head. Are you going to allow this in plane and teach to the airline crew regarding this...

    just can't believe...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Ruby

      No. Obviously it also wouldn't be okay for a Hindu or Catholic to light incense on board the plane. The rules are the rules. No animals in the cabin (except cats in approved containers), no fire, no smoking, and you have to obey crew instructions. That's the one place these passengers went wrong. Sit down when crew says to sit down and quit digging in your bags. If you need something, ask the crew permission to get it. If they want you to wait until the pilot gives the go ahead to move about the cabin, so be it.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  9. Don

    So it appears that the airlines didn't know they were Jewish... what did they think they were? Muslims? So its okay if an Orthodox Jew prays on an airplane and everyone recognizes it, but its a security concern when they believe that they might be Muslims? I think that people need to learn a little about world religion.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Denogh

      [sarcasm]Yes, Muslims are terrifying. [/sarcasm]

      March 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  10. Steve in NY

    So they strap things to their arms and head and pray loudly in a foreign language while on a plane? Even if that behavior is normal to them, giving the other people on a crowded plane a heads up that they're about to act that way would be a nice courtesy. Pray all you want but be considerate

    March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Colfen

      Agreed!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Ooob

      Steve how about you be considerate of them... or are you above them. Fail.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Denogh

      @Ooob

      No, it is they who are imposing upon those around them. If they were in their own home or a place of worship there would be nobody inconvenienced, nobody offended, nobody frightened. This was clearly a case of discourtesy on the part of the praying passengers.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  11. M.E. Freeland

    I agree that prayers should be reciited either before a flight, or after, or both, rather than during the flight. While we respect others religions, their services are unknown or foreign to many of us. What would happen if some of the more energetic members stood up iin the aisle and shouted amen or rolled on the floor? I'm sure security would halt that action in a hurry. I think there needs to be some rules concerniing proper behaviour on a plane,concerning prayer rituals. It does not matter whose religion we are discussing. And I don.t feel an apology was necessary.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  12. Jon

    Stop me if I sound ludicrous but I certainly wouldn't feel as threatened on a plane when three Hasidim are praying with Teffilin vs. some Islamic fanatic shouting "Allahu Akbar" with a determined look on his face.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  13. ComstockDoc

    Religious practices are of paramount importance to many Americans (regardless of religious preference), so maybe we should express just how high a priority these practices are to us by booking a flight before or after performing said practices......

    March 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  14. JBooneMN

    The airline should not have to appologize for their reaction. These gentlemen were out of line to do this mid-flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Colfen

      Totally agree!

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

      How could they have known that they had the only Mexican rabbis in existence on their plane?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  15. 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. I'm sure that these men were rabbis. There are specific times when prayer is to be given, on the ground or in the air, etc.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Derek

    "During weekday prayers, some Orthodox Jewish men wear tefillin" actually all men of age in Orthodox or Conservative judaism are required by the Torah to wear them. In Reform judaism they are considered "optional". I just thought non-jews at least knew what tefillin looked like, but I guess I was wrong.

    BTW it's spelled "tefillin" not "teflillin", there is no L after the F. CNN needs to correct that.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Concerned Person

      Actually it can be worn daily for Orthodox Jewish men

      March 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Valerie

    The sheer hypocrisy of most of the readers here blows my mind. Can you imagine the almighty wrath that would rain down upon Alaskan if these people had been a group of CHRISTIANS trying to pray? Can you imagine the outrage that would ensue if the airline suggested the Christians STAY HOME if they feel the need to pray? Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin would probably PERSONALLY lead a rioting mob to the headquarters of AA and burn them down. But, of course, they are just Jews so their rights don't deserve to be protected. Hypocrites, the lot of you. God forbid anyone should have to familiarize themselves with the general practices of one of the three main religions in the world.

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

      Valerie,

      There are perhaps 15 million Jews in the entire world, and perhaps a few percent of that small number practices this particular flavor. It is absurd to expect that everyone will familarize themselves with such obscure practices.

      Pretty name you have, though.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Calvin

      I suspect if the Christians strapped crap onto themselves and made a spectacle of themselves on the plane, there would have also been a huge problem. Beck and Palin would have laughed at them.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • ComstockDoc

      So now Americans should present college transcripts and proof of religious awareness across all religions before they can purchase an airline ticket? Maybe we should just take a "World's FIVE Major Religions" Exam before being granted a pass to fly.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Chris Lyon

      Did we have a little to much caffine this morning?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Pay Attention

      @Valerie... Christians wouldn't be treated that way because they are more prevalent in America than Orthodox Jews. People are more aware of Christian prayers than Orthodox Jewish prayers; even non-Christians have heard a Christrian prayer or two. Also, the Christian prayers are (mainly) in English, not Hebrew, and more people in America speak English than Hebrew. People were ignorant to what was going on around them and became concerned; AA is now learning from this experience so they don't do it again.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • Gerry Mihalatos

      You cant expect people to know every fringe ritual of evry religion. How familiar are you with Pentecostal snake handlers? These people obviously have disdain for those around them and if they had any respect for their fellow passengers they would have explained themselves. I do my cross before takeoff and after landing but I have never started yelling the Lords Prayer in public.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Reg

      ANY religious rite that makes people disobey the flight crew, get out of their seats to strap black boxes on their bodies, while loudly chanting in a foreign language, is rightly cause for alarm by the flight crew. Get real.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Ruby

      Judaism is the second largest religion in the U.S. There are more Jewish people in the U.S. than any other country, except of course Israel. These guys aren't exactly space aliens, though it's understandable if you are not from the East or West coast if you have never met a Jewish person. However, we had a couple of Jewish kids in my high school in Iowa. And I ran into several more in the military. Yet another argument for mandatory service, military or otherwise – people would meet and live and work with Jews and Hindus and Muslims and people of all races and ethnicities and political beliefs. We have become too divided and cut off from each other as Americans.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Denogh

      If anyone feels the need to don absurd costumes and pray mid-flight in a foreign language, it might be best for them to just take a flight during which they will not have to do that. I don't care if they're Russian Orthodox Christians praying in Russian, Muslims praying in Arabic or Jedi communing with the force.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • bluedog47

      1.7% of the US population, 5 million people. . The majority live in the North East and California.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  18. Louis

    This is post 9/11. Anything like that, religious or not, would be taken as possibly dangerous by anyone that did not know the in-depth ritual. The three men should have understood this, whether it's their religion or not, and accept that the world has changed. Anyone thinking the airline acted out of order for their concerns should open their eyes to what the post 9/11 world is really like. If there had been an Air Marshal on board, you can bet the men would have been approached in a much more harsh manner.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Ruby

      I hope Air Marshals receive basic familiarization with major religious rituals and vestments so they can make an informed decision as to when there is a risk. I know what Muslims praying look like, both Sunni and Shi'a, both ultra religious and casual worshippers, because I spent some time in the Middle East in the military, as well as some time learning Arabic from Muslims. It was part of a soldiers' job – knowing what right looked and sounded like so you would pay attention when things got different.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  19. John

    What absolutely scares me is the cluelessness of the passengers...I am absolutely entirely for religious freedom. But please tell these guys to get a clue..I mean this would obviously freak most people out and its time for people in this country to become sensitive about what is going on in the world and take a break. I mean pray when you get to the hotel...this is AMERICA. We are ALL AMERICANS if you live here. So stop, get off your own religious soapbox and think about those next to you. I dont talk loudly on airplanes, i dont draw attention to myself, I dont make scens. Why? because I respect those AROUND ME. And these three individuals need to start to get that (they never will). My father once told me there is a time and place for everything....

    March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • great, but

      then let each religion that is not well understood by the mainstream in this country go on a familarization tour

      do you really expect someone from Montana or Iowa to be familar with Orthodox Jewish religious practices?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • nightlight

      Ah–so other people's behavior is acceptable just as long as they behave just like you?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • cmxsmitty

      Would you say the same thing if someone pulled out their rosary?

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

    This is a two way Problem, 1) airlines understanding religional diversity and 2) those who have feel the need to perform their religious acts understanding the hightened security. if the flight falls in your prayer hour, Take a different flight. Understand though that to protect the possible hundreds of other people on the plane, anyones actions religious or otherwise are subject to concern. If they had complied with all the crew instructions to stay seated, the concern may never had arised.

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

      You hit the nail on the head!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Ooob

      And problem #3 – People like you pushing your will on others. You fail.

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

      But yet the three men pushed their will on everyone on board. Without thinking of how their actions could be perceived.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • h

      freedom of religion

      your post fails after that...

      I'm an atheist, but people have the right to pray. If this was a christian prayer this would not have been news. The plane would not have landed and the FBI would not have been called.

      This is pure ignorance and nothing more, people can pray whenever they want, even on a plane. There is no danger posed by praying, and freedom of religion prevents you from making it illegal for people to pray (also illegal to force others to pray but that's not what was happening here).

      March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Colleen

      Well said Joseph

      March 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Mark Lasso

      That was totally inappropriate. Pray to yourself. Hold hands, or whatever. Freedom of religion doesn't mean you can hold a prayer service on a commercial aircraft. It does, however, mean that you can pray, silently. You can pray together, silently. I would have been worried if I heard them praying and I would have recognized they were Jewish in an instant. It would still have made me think something bad was about to happen. And then I would have prayed, to myself, that they didn't have a bomb or something.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Ooob

      Those 3 did not push their will on the passengers. Those passengers didn't have to listen. It was their bigotry and racist predications that pushed their own wills against them, and therefore, against these 3 jews. I'm not a jew but i know when i see ignorance, and you got it buddy.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Ooob

      Freedom of religion means you don't have to hide and pray silently. Mark lasso. Welcome to america, if you don't like it, you are free to leave.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Louis

      Put a B in front of your name and that's what you look like with your comments.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • ozrocco

      When your "prayer ritual" resembles a three-ring circus, it doesn't help.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Christina

      There is another, more responsible choice that allows for them to both travel and observe their daily lives. They should have engaged the flight crew in an informative dialogue before doing things that would be considered unusual for passengers. I would hope anyone would realize engaging in ritual rights in an enclosed public space is unusual. With freedom comes responsibility and the need for awareness the situation one is in. I would have no problem with someone quietly engaging in a religious prayer, as long as someone explained it to me. I know I've acted unusually on a plane, due to just being afraid. When I noticed a person sitting near me looking at me, I'd explain I was a nervous flyer.

      They also should have had made preparations, such as having the materials in the seat pocket or under the seat, so that they would not have to leave their seats and disobey the flight crew. If there was some confusion on the instructions, they should have just talked to the crew and clarified what they would like to do and why.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Ray

      As an Orthodox Jew, it is clear that many people writing here do not have any knowledge whatsoever about Jewish prayer. Perhaps I can clear things up. The flight left Mexico City at 6AM, and was scheduled to land around 9AM. The morning prayers must be said within certain time constraints, and certain prayers must be said before a certain time. The people involved had no choice but to say the prayers on the flight. By the time they would have gathered their belongings at LAX after the flight, it would have been beyond the time to say certain prayers.That being said, they certainly should have alerted the cabin crew as to what they were doing, and they should have mentioned to those seated near them that they were only saying prayers.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Really?

      You are right! if they wanted or knew that the hour of their prayer was going to be when they were in the air, thay should have taken another flight. If I were on that fly, I would have gotten up and confronted them because it would have put my nerves on edge. No matter what anyone says, no one should be doing any type of loud praying on a plane!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:11 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.