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. Jeff Koenigsberg

    All I can say Oy Vey!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  2. K

    Would it have been that difficult for the praying passengers to answer the crew's questions and follow safety orders? It seems like they could have been a little more forthcoming on what they were doing to avoid raising concerns.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  3. ART

    They are always anxious and neurotic, just come to NYC

    March 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • John

      do the words world war 2 sound familiar?
      stop stereotyping against Jews. True, they may have some crazy ones, but what would you do if I said that all Christians are murderers because of the Crusades. Or that all Muslims are murderers because of what is going on in the middle east?
      why does everybody think it is ok to stereotype all of a sudden?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  4. John

    for those of you defending this a question. First, why do I have to sit in my seat when the flight attendant says sit down but these three dont? Explain that to me....

    And second, Im going to try to explain this concept and if you dont get it you dont get it. In my heart I think the rest of the world laughs at our country and i will tell you why. Because we are so spoiled that we all feel we have the right to do anything we want and say what we want because of our own self righteousness. So anything with illegal immigrants, or minorities is always met with ignorant defense without thought. I am a minority....Im black. And you know what. If you see me doing something super weird and strange and causing a disruption feel free to say something to me. Not because Im black but becasue I am disrespectful. I was pulled over last week at 5 am heading to work in a very nice neighborhood (where I live). you know why? because I was SPEEDING. I am all for those who want to practice religions that are based in cultures that date back centuries. Great. More power to you. But you know what? YOU DONT LIVE IN THAT CENTURY. So if you want to walk or take a horse and buggy wherever you go...fine. Pray outloud all you want and dont listen to anyone around you. But if you want to fly. IN THIS COUNTRY. BE RESPECTFUL TO THOSE AROUND YOU. becasue in case you did not realize it there are a group of people whose entire life are dedicated to trying to KILL US! GET IT!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  5. picture this

    the the folks who thinks cnn owes an apology to another airline......well what about the company that made the stop sign, or the landsacape company that planted the trees, or the electric company sending power down the lines. Get real people its a picture. Stop finding every reason you can to attack cnn.

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

    You are good at repeating the same thing over and over again. Just like a real minister, just regurgitate the same crap you were fed to the masses/sheep and keep the fairy tale perpetuating, but don't really offer any new or enlightened concepts.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  7. JARAD

    Would it have been that difficult for these 3 men to explain that they were involved in a prayer ceremony? To comply with the requests of the cabin crew?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  8. Kevin

    I guess they thought the Jews were actually Muslims. Good thing Jewish terrorism is only done through the government of Israel.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  9. DD

    Have to side with the airline on this regarding safety. When the flight crew asks you to do something it is not an option, they are in charge, and are concerned for all passengers. Also, passengers, have some courtesy for your fellows. I have respect for anyone's beliefs but not if it is disrupting the peace in a small enclosed space.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  10. AnnieM

    I have no problem with anyone practicing their religion as long as it doesn't adversely affect others. Seeing and hearing someone praying while wearing black taped boxes with wires while on a flight would certain unnerve me. In this day and age, you never know what form or fashion terrorists are going to use. These gentlemen should have made the effort to either wait until they were on the ground or have informed the airline personnel of their plans so the passengers wouldn't have been frightened.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  11. keith

    why should the airline apologize for the actions of others? Ok I get it, they pray like the rest of us, but what I can't undestand is why they have to do it out in the open like that, to potentially cause a scene where in today's day and age people are going to react. Sorry not the airlines fault.....makes ya wonder though if they gave them free swag

    March 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  12. B.L. Zebub

    Isn't religion stupid?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Hopeful

      Religion is not stupid. Intolorance is. A simple conversation could of avoided this situation. Believe or dont believe. That is your choice. Don't demean other people because they choose to have faith and you dont.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  13. Jen

    As a former flight attendant I just have to say it is not about discriminating religious practices. Post 9/11 I had worked flights with muslim people on bored that needed to pray at certain times of the day and then came to us and asked if we would mind if they used the galley to pray. As long as it did not impeed the safety of other passangers or ourselves it was never a problem. When the fasten seat belt sign is on you need to stay seated and not open over head comparments. By not following the rules of the flight you put yourself and others in danger. By not following the rules along with a non-mainstream prayer ritual that was not explained to the crew members it raises a new level of awareness and caution. I think it was very appropriate action taken by the crew members.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • yalesouth

      What you say makes sense to me.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • PlaneSense

      Your comment makes perfect sense. I am an Orthodox Jew and would not stand to pray or put on Tfillin (the "boxes" these guys were wearing) unless there were flight delays or scheduling issues and there was no other choice. Even then, I would only do it after letting the flight attendants know what I was doing. If there was turbulence or the flight attendant wasn't comfortable, I would suck it up and pray later.

      With that said, for those who are comparing what these Jews did to Muslims praying on a plane, may I remind you that it was NOT Jews who hijacked numerous planes in the '70s; nor was it Jews who hijacked the planes on 9/11 and murdered thousands. Right, now you got it, it was Muslims. Common Sense folks and you'll see there is a difference.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  14. Bob R

    Pray Quietly.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  15. yalesouth

    Flight attendants were totatly jusitfied;. I beleive in respecting other people's relgiion, but when you go to an airport and get on a plane, conformity is the name of the game, and, as a passenger, I would have been very uncomfortable. People need to use a little common sense, unless they were living in a bubble the past 10 years?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  16. Joe citizen abroad

    How about a little sensitivity training for those three praying passengers? Have they been living under a rock for the past ten years? How about a little common sense and courtesy on their part? That's not too much to ask. In the absence of that, the aircrew behaved appropriately. No apology necessary.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  17. Snackle

    Most Jews regard Hasidics as pretty damned weird, not to mention embarrassing.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Concerned Person

      I consider that statement ignorant as well as antisemetic

      March 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • gary provencher

      these were Orthodox. Equally weird to us Christians, but not Hasidic as you mentioned.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Snackle

      These don't sound like Orthodox. The article is almost certainly describing them incorrectly.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Snackle

      Update: the article refers to Chabad Lubavitch as Orthodox. It's Hasidic.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Tom

    How about we ALL follow the rules of the airline and we ALL pray in silence?

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


      March 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  19. Marine4life

    MMmmmmh. No praying while plane is in the air.... no praying anywhere......
    this sounds awfully familiar.....

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

      You need to appreciate where you are, on a us bound plane full of american passengers and flight crew who will not be faimilar with the cusotm. totatlly inappriate to do what those passengers did, i think.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • michelle

      I don't mind the praying, but it should definitely be discreetly done with yourself and guy. God is a God of order, not confusion and these gentlemen definitely created a lot of confusion.

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

      Yeah, I'd be up for religion leaving the public arena. It's a private belief. Keep your fanaticism to yourself.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • ArmyRetiree

      Marine, I feel you. Sure does sounds like an old tune. I think I've heard it somewhere, just can't place it yet.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • me

      I don't know, I seem to remember a few bouts of turbulence where quite a few fellow passengers were praying...

      March 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • ListenUp

      How about sitting with your seat belt fastened and don't get up when the light is on.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • retMarine

      True that, Marine4life. Too many tunes repeating itself. More of us dying out there. Thanks for your service. Hang tough, and see you on the other side. SEMPER FIDELIS

      March 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • TexasRangerinAfgh

      Freedom is for everyone. Where you like it or not. Hey civies, Fear comes from the unknown. There are other books out there other than Tom Sawyer. Expand your horizons and your minds. Don't let fear consume you. Been on duty in Afghanistan for 3 years now, believe me, you are making a storm out of a drop of water.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • MarineTX1

      Been in Iraq for 2 years now. This issue is laughable at its best. This reminds me of civilians with concealed handgun licenses, they're just waiting to pull their gun out, probably because they got beat up as a kid.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Albert Johnson

      Prayer isn't the problem. Making it a prduction number is the problem

      March 16, 2011 at 1:35 am |
  20. h

    Only in america would people try to make a legitimate argument out of the idea of willful ignorance.

    "why should I have to learn about obscure religious practices"

    you don't have to. But if you refuse to try and even learn about other cultures then you should realize that you are ignorant, albeit by choice, and therefore shouldn't be racially profiling since, you are ignorant and don't have the information needed to make an informed decision about what the difference is between a prayer and a terrorist attack...

    March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Concerned Person


      March 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Jonas

      i would think that it would have been more appropriate for the men to explain, before they began, exactly what they were doing.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • EJV

      It is the duty of the individual to inform the uninformed. To expect anything more is arrogant and leads to a negative outlook on the individual; in this case it is fuel for antantisemetism. Jews like this are foolish and make other Jews pay the price by fearing reprisal and becoming defensive. These gentleman acted with arrogance and a disregard for the likelihood that others may not know what tefillin is and coud be frightened on a plane. They should have informed the flight attendants, its that simple.

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

      At least the media is telling the Taliban exactly what to wear and do next time they want to highjack a plane. You know Alaska Air will not confront any orthadox jews with black boxes and wires taped to them in the near future.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Mainer

      Right, excellent point. The onus is on the airline to know each and every religious ritual in the name of cultural tolerance. Mr. tolerance, do you know every Buddhist ritual? What about Hindu? Perhaps Shinto? The idea you could know of every potential ritual is beyond absurd. The onus is on the passengers to be reasonable. Realize that we live in times of heightened fears and panic. Your bleeding heart may not agree with it, but seeing Middle Eastern men chant things in unison makes airline passengers nervous. It's the reality, accept it rather than trying to live in happy-judgment free-utopia land. Was it necessary to conduct this seemingly complex and multi-faceted ritual in the MIDDLE OF A LONG-DISTANCE FLIGHT? Couldn't have waited until the layover? Or until you made it to the Synagogue in L.A?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:18 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.