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. Siobhan

    If you can't figure out to stay in your seat when the "Fasten Seat Belt" sign is on or pack a bag containing the items you may need during that will fit under the seat in front of you, then perhaps a fairly involved religious right is beyond your mental capacity at this time.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  2. JH

    I'm Jewish and while I'm not Orthodox, I was raised with them so I'm not speaking out of ignorance. Orthodox Jews believe they are above society's rules and are uninterested in the reactions their extremism might cause. No, there's nothing wrong with praying but they also had a public duty to be more sensitive to their surroundings and the climate we live in.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  3. yalesouth

    On the other hand I wonder if there was a communciations problem, do we know if they spoke english or a language the crew spoke?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  4. seriously?

    No one on here is being ignorant. NO ONE can say that this wouldn't make them at least a bit uneasy.. The simultaneous prayers might put a few people on edge, but when these men are strapping boxes to their body, refusing the orders of flight staff, and accompanying each other to the bathroom- that should raise multiple concerns. I don't care if these men were Jewish, Arabic, or white Americans, this ritual and their actions would make me quite uncomfortable.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • sockpuppet

      uh yeah I can say I wouldn't have had a problem with it, because even though I am not an Orthodox Jew, I have heard of their religious practices and would've recognized it for what it was. So yeah by it's very definition you are being ignorant.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  5. JimMNH

    The staff and passengers had every right to be alarmed. The behavior was unusual and not in keeping with safety restrictions or instructions from the crew at the time. Jewish members have every right to practice their faith, but as the Anti-Defamation League rep even said, it certainly would not have hurt for these passengers to mention prior to their activities what they were intending to do. If someone starts getting up when everyone is to be seated and starts chanting in a language unfamiliar to others that is certainly going to concern passengers and crew. It's just a matter of courtesy that they explain it is a religious activity and invite a bit of patience.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  6. Doug

    These 3 should be the ones doing the apologizing.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  7. marianna68

    Nothing wrong with praying but if you are told to remain seated and with seatbelts on best to comply irregardless of your faith. If you believe in God am sure He hears you irregardless of what you are wearing or holding.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  8. Americant

    Good job. The terrorists have won. They have provoked fear in every American in the wake of 9/11, so that in addition to body scanners and full-body pat-downs, peoples' freedom of speech is being infringed upon. I personally do NOT believe in God, and whoever it was that said that "prayer is a natural part of human life" couldn't be further from the truth. Religion and God, in all it's forms, is completely man-made. A man wrote a book with a bunch of passages, to give some insecure people comfort with their lives. Wait... Different men, wrote a bunch of different books, all alluding to the existence of God in whatever manner suited them, and people picked up the religion that best fit their imaginations. On 9/11, thousands of people were victims of maniacal "religious" folks, who believed they were going to get into their "God's" good graces by flying airplanes into buildings. These people are nothing but terrorists, and by definition, their job is to instill fear in the people who don't follow their beliefs. Religion is the backbone of all the problems in the world today, and the terrorists "practicing their religion" got their way. If it weren't for religion, planes wouldn't have been flown into buildings that day, and we wouldn't be subjected to all the infringement of our basic freedoms today. Obviously, religion isn't going to go away, but people really need to get a grip. Let whoever believe whatever they want to believe, but don't let the god damned terrorists win THEIR war. Stop being so afraid.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • susan

      The terrorists have not won when a flight attendant is concerned because passengers are disregarding the rules. Anyone who disregards the instruction to stay seated- unless violently ill- is in the wrong. These conduct of these three passengers is the problem.

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

      Sorry Susan, fairly certain you're wrong. It's not a rule. It's a CYA. They have to tell people to remain in their seats, so that if they get injured while moving around, the airline isn't liable. I've never freaked out, nor seen anyone freak out, when someone gets up to use the lavatory while the Fasten Seatbelt lamp is lit. But, this day, these folks getting out of their seats, in conjunction with them practicing their religion and/or not keeping it to themselves, freaked some people out. Why...? See my OP. They were getting stuff out of the overhead bin? Seen that too. People knew how to mind their own business before the terrorists got involved. So, yes. They ARE winning.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  9. Todd

    Religious people scare me whether on a plane, in a bus, out in public, basically anywhere. Anyone who is so easily influence by another person telling fairy tails is scary.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • sockpuppet

      bigots like you scare me

      March 15, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Zippy

      I totally agree. Fairy tails should only be told at home. We should have to be exposed to others mythologies.

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

      Do you know who scares me...people who do not know their own language...Fairy "Tales" are stories .... Fairy "Tails" (as you call them) are...well...appendages I would assume!

      Lighten up and allow people their faith...life is far too short on this earth to become to cynical.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • laura

      I mean "too cynical"...grammar...arrrgggghhh!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  10. sockpuppet

    the people that say we shouldn't have to hear someone else's religious ritual, get over it. Nobody wants to hear you talk either, but yet you still do.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  11. Tim F

    I agree with Jackson. They wouldn't be in this mess if they postponed praying for novel concept just prayed in silence. I am Christian myself and never had the urge to scream hallelujah.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  12. Guest

    Didn’t earlier article say they were Mexican Muslims?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  13. Frank

    anybody with religious headgear needs to realize they can start tieing stuff to themselves and praying....ON AN AIRPLANE!!!! Knock that stuff off.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  14. frequent flyer

    If you ever fly into Tel Aviv there is a extremely strict policy enforced that while in Israeli airspace that ALL passangers MUST remain seated with seatbelts the entire time no matter what – or else you are told you will be "tackled" by security – why would that security be acceptable but passenger safety during turbulance be seen as "optional" to those who wish to pray? Opening overhead bins during turbulance puts all passengers in the vicintiy at risk of falling luggage items.

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

      Excellent point.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • sockpuppet

      because they weren't flying over Tel Aviv?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  15. Belarius Marek

    I think they should have refrained from conducting an elaborate ritual on the plane. They are not exempt from following the security and safety rules that the crew attempted to enforce. Just because you are a Jew, doesn't mean you are allowed to disregard the rules all the rest of us must follow. However, any time you criticize a Jew's behavior, you get labeled anti-semitic. Lets use a bit of rationality and all follow the rules. Keep your religious rituals for your temple.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  16. Hanna Silver

    it seems that the entire crew fell victim to ignorance. By the way why should everyone be subjected to somebody's devotional noises.Common sense!

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

      But consider, most people in the U.S. have no idea what others believe and imo, aren't interested because "they're the only ones right." This is why people should take some time and learn. I can understand a prayer if one is nervous but the ones doing the praying should also consider the fact if others don't understand the language and ritual, you probably shouldn't do it. Even if you take the time to explain, it's still a poor choice of timing.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  17. yalesouth

    It really has nothing to do with the sect of faith of the men praying. Had they been Christians pracisitng unfamiliar rituals, chanting in an unknown or unfamiliar langauge, they would have caused the same amount of alarm, and it woul dhave been inappropriate?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  18. RA3

    I am surprised that no passengers tried to take that situation into their own hands, i know quite a few people who would have been concerned enough that their little prayer session would have ended prematurely. Completely inappropriate for the time and place, pray somewhere else, not on a crowded plane where many travelers are anxious about flying to start with.

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

      What I don't understand is, why didn't they do their praying before boarding the plane especially since there is so much involved. Why didn't they explain everything to the airline when they booked the flight. That way the crew could have explained it to the other passengers before it happened. There is a time and place for everything and I don't think this was the right time or place for that type of praying.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  19. Jimbo

    I think the airline acted very appropriatly and that the jews that where praying should be the ones who have to appologize. You pray out load on a plane in some language most people don't know, prepare to be interogated. How about you pray in your head, if you believe your god can't hear you unless you speak outloud, your're crazy becuase you think a god can hear you at all.

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

      Excellent point Jimbo. These zealots handled this situation very badly and should issue an apology

      March 15, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Sharon Barnes

      I believe that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. If you want to pray do it in private, not in the middle of a crowd.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • sockpuppet

      really Sharon? It's part of living amongst other human beings....you have to hear things you don't want to just by the fact that you are within the vicinity of other speaking people. Unless you plan on shutting your mouth every time you walk out your front door, you have no more right to complain about the free speech of others than I do of yours.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  20. Liz

    What a moment...
    We scream and hollar when the Christian Lord's prayer is said in public events, but we're not allowed to question or be alarmed when an unfamiliar prayer is practiced in close quarters? Even if it was a little over the top, the reaction of the flight crew is understandable. They were concerned for the safety of the passengers as well as themselves.

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

      Liz, I agree 100%.....you comment is right on.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • stejo

      I frankly wouldn't want to be on a plane with some joker saying the Lord's Prayer aloud while appearing to have wires and black tape strapped to his chest.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • JimMNH

      And going to the can with a black box.

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

      Your comment is ignorant. There is a huge difference between holding a public prayer and someone just praying. Yeah, I get all up in arms when Christians want to recite a public prayer because I'm not a Christian. If you went to a ball game and there was a public Islamic prayer for the game you would probably get offended down to your little Christian boots. Most Christian flip a lid when they see someone from a specific faith just pray amongst themselves but then flip out if they can't hold a public prayer over others. The way you worded your statement proves this. Then again, prayer is the ultimate way to make it look like you're doing something by doing nothing at all. Nails don't hammer themselves and praying to get them done is just as effective.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:35 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.