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. jkress

    What if everyone on the plane decided to stand up and pray out loud – would that be acceptable? Take your religious babblings back to the Bronze Age or keep it to yourself!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  2. Rudeboy42

    I agree w/BugDad. Unless these guys have never watched TV or read a newspaper, they should of showed some common sense. They should apologize back to AA and the passengers for their ignorance. If I was on that plane, I would of been quite bothered. I am also wondering why the plane didn't do an emergency landing somewhere instead of continuing a 4 hour flight to LA. What if these guys were Jewish terrorist waiting to blow up the plane over US soil?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  3. Sup3rman

    I don't care who they are. If I see a passenger strap some box to themselves with wires on a plane He may get hurt.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  4. notborncynical

    Just another example of terrorist hysteria. Let's face it – they're winning because they have everyone on constant high alert.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  5. Saint

    Hahahaha okay, as a "secular" Jew I have to comment on this.

    I had never seen Tefilin in my life (I am 24 now) until 2 years ago when I visited Israel and saw my first Orthodox Jews. I have to admit that the Tefilin prayer boxes and arm bandages look weird as hell. Especially for people unaccustomed to them, and in this time of heightened sensitivity about terrorism. With the huge beards and the flem-language, Orthodox Jews probably appear and sound very similar to crazy Muslim terrorists.

    This is definitely NOT one of those situations where "people need to be more culturally sensitive". Jews are probably the most harmless, docile people on the planet behind Tibetan monks.

    BUT we can't live in la-la-land. Weird behavior on airplanes is unacceptable, whether ill-intentioned or not. If they were unsure of societal norms for proper airplane behavior, all they had to do was look around. When in Rome.... If no one else is jumping out of their seats doing chants, then get a freaking clue.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Ya'akov

      So true. Tefillin ARE weird looking but it's hard for me to imagine someone confusing frum Jews with muslims, not that muslims praying prostrate on the floor are all that intimidating either.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Ya'akov

      So true. Tefillin ARE weird looking but it's hard for me to imagine someone confusing frum Jews with muslims, not that muslims praying prostrate on the floor are all that intimidating either.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  6. Justen

    People need to GROW UP and GROW A PAIR for a change. This country has allowed its godless, heathen government to make them afraid of their own shadows. GROW UP PEOPLE. Stop letting your government scare you and make u afraid of every thing that goes bump in the night. I am so sick to death of these alert levels and the constant scare tactics that the government uses in order to make you think you actually need them to tell you what to do, what to think and when to think it–and they do it in order that you THE PEOPLE will let the government seize yet more power from you and take more of your rights in the name of some fascist lie they call "national security"...

    March 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  7. bronxboy30

    The airline had nothing to apologize for. I was on a flight back from Argentina and I've never seen a group as disrespectful of the flight attendants as these Orthodox Jew were. Kept talking on their cell phones, moving around the plane when told not to and ignoring any other requests. I guess that's the 'tude you have when you believe your one of the chosen....

    March 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  8. What if

    Could you imagine the headlines if these men were Muslim? Glen Beck would be screaming hate....media would make this an unnecessary fiasco and the airline would justify its actions. Oh the double standards of America.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  9. Imjustme

    The men should be apologizing, definitely not the airline. These passengers had instructions from the crew to remain seated, which they ignored. They also did NOT have to do this on a plane. If there are specific times of day they must pray then they definitely shouldn't arrange for commercial travel during that time. I don't care what religion you are, you should respect the crew and other passengers enough to comply with instruction from the crew. Have some common sense and practice in more appropriate surroundings, perhaps BEFORE getting on the plane would have been a much better choice guys.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • BC

      Even if they have to pray at a certain time, and they scheduled around it, what if their flight was delayed?

      When the crew says to keep seat belts fastened, you can still get up to go potty. You are also allowed to access your carry-ons. You just can't stand up for a long period of time.

      And I'm sure if they prayed like that at the gate they'd be harassed there as well.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  10. Common Sense

    Time and place for everything! This flight was NOT the time nor the place for that.

    The airline should be commended for the way they handled this situation! Kudos!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • christian

      Whatever the religion, sensitivity to the security of travel has to be number one priority, If you have to have a prayer service with "black boxes" do it at home or at least in the airport folks, or dont travel. They could well have been "testing" the airline!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  11. bugdad

    Now Al Queda has the perfect cover to do some dasderdly act. The braids might be difficult, though.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  12. jay

    Take the time and learn about other views. Makes life easier. Not so simple minded. Be the bigger person. Learn something dumb yanks.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  13. Jaron

    The reason why this happened is because fools like you are too ignorant to tell the difference between an ortho jew and a muslim. Personally I think its hilarious how stupid people are...how about learning something about the faiths of the world instead of being closed minded and arrogant... Seriously

    March 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • bugdad

      I don't care if they were monkeys fighting over a banana altar, their actions were selfish and almost intentionally intimidating.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Dave

      I have been on flights before that had praying and no one cared! I hope they sue the airlines for being stupid!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Jacko

      Why do you think it's acceptable for a Jew to behave like this but not a Muslim? Either way, the behavior is unusual and should be treated as a threat, particularly when it's clear the three men made no attempt to explain their actions. Completely unacceptable behavior.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Steve

      Nobody needs to learn that useless BS. There is a time and place for everything and that wasn't it.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Frank

      Jaron you're an idiot (one mans opinion). It's my fault because I don't care ot know everything about every religion? I'm not religious for a reason. I don't care about religion. I'm sure those fine sane people who are religious don't care to learn everything about every other religion either. Narrow minds like yours are what cause the worlds problems.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  14. Justin

    The thing that stuck out most to me was the fact that the ADL director said the onus was on BOTH parties; on the airlines for becoming educated about this ritual, but also on the 3 men for providing a heads-up that they would be performing a (relatively) uncommon prayer ritual on an airplane. I can't remember the last time I saw one of these incidents that involved a Muslim in which it was opined that BOTH parties have a responsiblity in avoiding confusion/alarm.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  15. jan

    why are all the posts not in order???? what a sloppy page.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Brandon

      Do a quick search for the word "chronological".

      March 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  16. Joe

    I believe these three did this on purpose in an attempt to spawn a lawsuit. What they did is similar to me showing up at a Muslim house of prayer towing a smoker full of pork products. I know it's wrong but try to stop me if you can. It's my perceived right to cook pork where ever I choose.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  17. Einstein

    Clearly the orthodox jewish passengers were in the wrong here and not the airline. They could have diffused the situation from the start by simply saying they were performing a prayer ritual, and then following the attendants instructions to remain seated. Even if the attendants are trained to recognize teflillin, I'd still want them to question passengers who ignore instructions, and then go to the toilet together with another watching guard...

    March 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Ya'akov

      I am sure there is more than enough blame to go around. I have tefillin and sometimes use them (I am a Conservative Jew, not orthodox). First, there are rather wide periods of time in which the morning, afternoon and evening prayers can be said (this would be a narrower window if the plane were flying east through time zones); however, a flight from Mexico City to LA might be long enough to require prayers to be said - so maybe they really did NEED to pray (this is very very important to most orthodox Jews). STILL, how hard would it be to (a) ask the flight attendant if they could stand (so they could face east presumably) and (b) take a little time to explain what you were doing to the flight crew??

      March 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    Why don't all of you making nasty comments about Jews just admit that you hate Jews. Your honesty would be more acceptable than your silly rationalizations.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Ok, I hate Jews. Happy? Dumba** it isn't always the world against the Jews. Haven't you played that card long enough or is it just too hard to get over the chosen people, superior-to-everyone-else race B.S? If that isn't organized racism then I don't know what is!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Fig1024

      ah come on, Americans hate Mexicans way more than Jews. And after Mexicans it's Muslims, Jews are last in line

      March 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • donaldj

      come on lets be serious -3 guys with funny outfits start some sort of foreign ritual and nothing should be said
      i dont think so-they should have done this before or after the plane took off-not everyone know the different rites
      don l

      March 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • bella36

      I am Jewsih too and I feel the same way.
      No jew in the world would feel that way Reform or not! Bunch of fake jews on here today folks.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • TomS

      Who said anything about hating Jews...NO ONE. It was just rude of these men to think they were above the law. I assume you think it was an anti-semetic (spelling?) airlines too. Grow up!!!! Catholics and others didnt disobey the airlines. You are the reason so many Jews are being stereoryped. NO ONE WAS PICKING ON THE JEWS....only the men and their behavior.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Dan

      Americans don't hate jews, we hate the self righteous, holy than thou, pieces of crap that think it's alright to completely disregard the flight crew, do whatever they want and then have their rabbi telll the media that people need more sensativity training towards the plight of the jew. I live in NY and deal with jewish people all the time and most are down to earth regular folks but we DO HATE the orthodox ones that completely believe they are better than everyone else. All because they wear a silly hat and have a beard that makes em look homeless.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  19. susan

    I applaud the spokeswoman for the ADL: rather than being blinded by her affiliation, she speaks common sense. Frankly,
    I am not sure why the airline apologized in light of the passengers' non-prayer conduct. I cannot recall a time I have ever seen 3 men visit the restroom together on a plane. As a passenger, I am very annoyed by people who don't stay seated when the seatbelt sign is on. These men seem to think the rules were for everyone else.
    As a fearful flyer, I pray on planes all the time....without disturbing other passengers.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Sup3rman

      I don't care who they are. If I see a passenger strap some box to themselves with wires on a plane, He may get hurt.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  20. Lee

    I'm Jewish and I think the 3 businessmen were out of line. They could pray siliently, or do so somehwere other than on an airplane. That's a small concession to make to the reality of the scary times we live in.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Fig1024

      They probably agreed to it as some sort of prank or dare. Maybe they bet money on it. Anyway they knew that as Jews they'd be protected from the law. Now if they were Muslim, they'd be accused of terror plotting "dry runs" or whatever

      March 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • jane

      Out of line because they wanted to pray? What nonsense!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Juan elger

      You are right they were out of line. But you arenot right that not to do so is a concession, they have no right to bother other people to other people with yells in a foreign language which could mean anyting. And such behavior does not mean that these individual did it basing on their believes, but simply to grandstand. If this is tolerated, they will do so in a theater or
      during a concert!!

      Why the hell the airline is apologizing?? What they should do is to accuse these people of public disturbance. And I am Jewish too!!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • bella36

      Now if they were Muslim, they'd be accused of terror plotting "dry runs
      It has happened to Muslim and they sued the airlines!

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

      I am Jewsih too and I feel the same way. I am a reformed Jew so I don't quite understand the orthodox Jewish ways... But I can say that these 3 men deserved what they got. I would be scared out of my mind too if I was on that plane!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Kazuki Taka

      "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."

      WHY? WHY? WHY? If there were Muslim, I think the whole story would have changed as follow:

      "Alaska Airlines did it right to report to police for a weekend incident in which three Muslim businessmen triggered security concerns by conducting a prayer ritual on board a flight to Los Angeles. The three businessmen are still being held for queationing."

      lol lol lol

      Fcuk. Please please no ritual prayer in an airplane. Can you imagine A380 carries 500 pessengers and all of them begin their ritual prayer at the same time. My Gosh. It would be ........ STUPID to give apology,

      March 15, 2011 at 5:07 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.