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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. Jesus

    All that for the magical man in the sky.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  2. benjolina

    Sorry, I will complain myself as a passenger with them.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  3. jewlnd

    akmed, akmed, call me!!!!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  4. Joe Blow

    One would have thought a polite inquiry by a member of the cabin staff regarding the gentlemens' activity would have elicited a polite, prompt and accurate description of what they were doing.
    All around it would seem both parties behavior was somewhat childish. Mature commonsense and cooperation could surely have averted any form of incident.

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

      "would have elicited a polite, prompt and accurate description of what they were doing." Yes, and I'm sure their response would've been, "Uh, we're just asking a make-believe man in the sky to keep the plane up in the air".

      March 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  5. atheistFish

    Ridiculous. Behavior tolerated BECAUSE of religion, what a joke.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  6. MINISTER

    GOD is not the author of confusion!

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

    >>Alaska Airlines embraces the cultural and religious diversity of our passengers and employees.

    Only if you are a Muslim. Everybody else gets a cavity search.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  8. Erky

    I mean think about it, strapping black boxes to your head as part of a prayer ceremony. It's like something out of Monty Python. But that's religion for you, dividing people and making them dumb for centuries.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  9. Ficheye

    I don't want to hear ANYONE loudly praying on any flight. If you can't pray silently just do it before you get on the plane. Doing it in front of everyone is a great way to get attention – which is why they were doing it in the first place. I have zero tolerance for 'orthodox' religious practices, whether it's voodoo, witchcraft, catholicism, fundamentalist christian, or the jewish faiths. Take your beliefs and shove them.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  10. Ruby

    I have only met Orthodox Jews in passing, and I have never seen Orthodox Jewish men pray with teffillin, but for goodness' sake, I've seen pictures of it in Newsweek or on TV or somewhere. These passengers should have remained seated when the flight crew said to, but other than that, they did nothing wrong or weird. Judaism is one of the major faiths in the U.S. SOMEBODY on the plane should have been able to explain what was going on or at least informed the crew that it was Hebrew the men were speaking, and so likely not a terror risk.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Texas Jew Boy

    Oy gevalt.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Lew Silk

      Can't I just press a "Like" button, or a Thumbs-Up icon?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  12. Good Atheist

    That's why I don't follow any particular fairy tale. No one has to worry about an atheist going off their nut and killing someone because their religion told them too. Throw away the adult versions of Santa Claus and the mumbling of magic words and just be decent to one another.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • the sane one

      You took the words right out of my mouth!! thanks from a fellow atheist

      March 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  13. Manuel

    I too do not believe the airlines should appologize. I believe in God, but I wouldn't deliberately do what these three did knowing it would cause uneasyness to others. I can't see how on earth these three could possibly thought that this would not alarm anyone. To be on an airplane after all that has happened in the past on airplanes I would have expected someone would have tackled me down and handcuffed me to a chair if I did that.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  14. talan7

    What if they had been muslim and started saying things like Allah be praised or whatever. They would've been shot. Christian, muslim or orthiodox jews, an plane flight is not the place to be making incomprehensible prayer that no one else understands. If average folk can't understand it, it shouldn't be said aloud o as to frighten folks. Some people thought they were going to blow up.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  15. JerryD

    In a state that would voted for half- Gov Palin.. should one expect sanity?

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

      You just hate women.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  16. Ken Elliott

    The airline probably over reacted, but these clowns could have waited until they got on the ground to pray. Ridiculous

    March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  17. One World - Many People

    I'm bothered by the lack of cultural awareness of the posts here. The general response seems to be that they should have known about western cultural and molded their behavior to compensate for western (christian) sensibilities.

    We don't restrict Bible reading on planes. Why? Because it is "normal". Get over it people. There are a lot of people in the world and not all of them know what scares you.

    I find it totally ironic that Orthodox Jews got caught by our fear of Islam. How simple minded we have become.

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

      Perhaps you are able to immediately detect the difference between the two. I spent four years in the Middle East and I can't do that. I'm betting the vast majority of others can't either. Reading the Bible, Torah or Quran is one thing, and it is private, where noone else besides those sitting next to you are aware of. Praying as these passengers were doing is something many on that plane could see, and undoubtedly hear.

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

      They were praying loudly. It's a real good way to make the other passengers nervous. Keep your 'open minded' views about religion to yourself. All they had to do was remain seated and pray to themselves. The we wouldn't have heard about it at all. I'll bet you that if these guys were interviewed they would say that they 'thought a little prayer would be good for us'. I resent having to be exposed to another facet of the mentality which has destroyed cultures and popularized hypocrisy.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • The BK

      Look, breaking out some little boxes with straps on a plane and then taking part in a religious ceremony is just plain stupid on
      the part of those partaking in the religious display. Praying out loud? Those 3 guys are lucky some toughies didn't jump on em and subdue them until the plane landed just to err on the side of caution. Act right people. Go about your business. Make people feel uncomfortable, and don't be surprised if you get gaffled!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • tony soprano

      are you kidding me? i would like to see how you would react as a bystander in a similar situation, you hypocritical moron you doltish fool..get f8cked

      March 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Steve

      This is a problem with Orthodoxs IMO, they are called out and above the gentiles, they have very little contact with us. They avert conversation. I would of recognized the footstool? But they could of been sympathetic to the times.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Ryan

      Oh please, if they tell you to sit down, then you sit down. Your religious views do not give you the right to do what you want on a plane, esp post 9-11. Dont act like "our religious intolerance" is the reason why these guys were singled out. If they would have listened to the flight attendants instructions in the first place this wouldnt have happened. Also, if something did happen on that plane & the flight attendants did nothing, well imagine that for a second....

      March 15, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Ken

      If they were not obeying the flight attendants directives or answering their questions, then it doesn't matter what religion they are.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  18. Jim

    I defend every religion's right to practice their own rituals without harrassment. That said, to an untrained ear, Hebrew and Arabic sound alike. Both Jews and Muslims are not only vocal but animated in their prayer practice. And native Jews and native Arabs may look similar to someone unfamiliar with that region. It is not surprising that this incident caused concern by both passengers and crew alike. Rather than putting the onus on the crew to be able to distinguish between Hasidic Jews and Radical Muslims, wouldn't it make more sense for those who will be praying during the flight to advise the crew beforehand so as not to alarm anyone? Just a thought.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • One World - Many People

      You make a good point, but make a unwarranted leap. You seem to be saying that all Jews should be assumed to be a non-threat, but all Arabs should be assumed to be radical Muslims and a threat.

      Hmmm. I bet the Palestinians living near the settlements see Jews as a threat.

      The flight crew was on an international flight. They should have been more aware. There is a difference between praying and killing people with box cutters.

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

      Got news for you homey, Muslims are the only craziness to fly the friendly skies

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

      Yeah, eventually to do anything in america you'll have to yell "I'M NOT A MUSLIM, OK??"

      March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Jim

      I made no such leap. You're making assumptions about what I wrote. However, there have been no incidents caused by Jews on planes here in the US. There have, however, been several with radical Muslims. I do not believe all Muslims are radical. Nor do I believe all Jews are peace-loving. Nor do I believe all Christians are peaceful, either. My point is if someone, or a group of people, are going to do anything that will bring attention to themselves, purposefully or not, they owe it to others to make it be known ahead of time, to alleviate any possible fears. In this case we are talking about 3 male Orthodox Jews. Had this been 3 male Muslims, the same would hold true.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  19. Ben (Jewish)

    If flight attendants told everyone to remain seated because of turbulence and these three guys kept getting up out of their seats, that's a problem. First Amendment doesn't cover that and neither does Jewish law... pretty sure God isn't a fan of people putting others at risk during turbulence to get the tifillin...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Dan (Jewish)

      They weren't putting other people at risk by getting up during turbulence. If they felt duty-bound to act in accordance to halakha, i don't see any problem with it. The airline totally over-reacted. What's the point of contacting the authorities after the plane's arrival, if the plane arrived safely, obviously these three men weren't planning anything bad. I smell anti-semitism. When did jews ever terrorize america? much less orthodox jews. It's just sad that people don't understand the importance of religious tolerance. there are more important things to do for some people than sitting down during a turbulence.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • not Jewish

      Actually, Dan they could be putting other people at risk by getting up during turbulence. Objects could easily fall out of the overhead bins when they were retrieving their prayer boxes. What if one of them had lost their balance during the turbulence and fallen on another passenger? I get frustrated and annoyed when ANY passenger on a flight I'm on gets up and moves about the cabin during turbulence. It's just not safe.

      You are on a private flight operated by a private company, and by purchasing a ticket from them, you agreed to the terms of their 'contract.' Those terms require you to listen to and obey the demands of the crew. For those passengers to ignore them completely is unacceptable, no matter why they did it.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Ken

      @Dan - If they feel so religiously principled that they must disobey flight attendants' directives, then I'm sure they will have no problem spending a few nights in jail for those same principles.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  20. Dave D.

    CNN owes Southwest Airlines an apology for y using a photo of one of their planes and attaching it to an article about Alaska Air.

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

      I was thinking the same thing...

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

      who cares? Could be reflection from the ground,

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

      I flew on Alaska Airlines once. They worked on a plane for four hours. We got on and it smelled like fuel. They ordered us off and we waited two hours. Got on another plane and as we were taxiing down the runway, the power cut off. We waited another three hours for another and there was a problem with the landing gear so they said they would reschedule us on flights the next day. When I asked for a hotel to stay in, they said they couldn't offer us one. Never again.

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

      The photo is of a Virgin Blue 737 taken at Sydney Airport.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:19 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.