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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. RL Turn

    Ridiculous. How about you pray aloud BEFORE boarding the plane. If every body expressed their religious beliefs on a plane after repeatedly being asked to take their seat, no plane would ever get off the ground. I know Penecostals that speak in tongues. Would the airline apologize to them for their Holy Ghost filled expression>
    How about Santería a religion of West African and Caribbean origin or a Muslim observing call to prayer on a flight.? I'm sure none of these religions would have been given a benefit of the doubt but a bullet from an Air Marshal instead!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Floyd

      Or how about a Rastafarian lighting up a doobie? Now that would be cool.
      I am a nervous flier, and a Catholic. I bring my Rosary and pray during take off and landing, but certainly keep it to myself and obey all rules for my SAFETY! Never thought to alert anyone as I assumed I was private and is obvious what I am doing if someone happened to see. Maybe I will alert them next time. Please obey very simple rules for your safety, others safety, so the crew can do their jobs effectively and for just plain old courtesy.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  2. Ricky

    damn jews always trying to be different...

    March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • yesheddo

      Oh ricky...please go back and get a high school diploma.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  3. JOHN

    Just because they are Jewish doesn't mean that can disrupt and disturb the people around them. A little common courtesy and common sense would go a long way.Praying is fine; just keep it to yourself and don't act like idiots.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Ren

      Amen!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Jeff S

      Yep. Perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to speak your mind if it will disturb or disrupt the people around you? Perhaps you should be allowed to vote either since your choice is not appropriate for the rest of the country? Perhaps you shouldn't be able to drink or smoke because it disrupts and disturbs the people around you?

      Where does it end?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  4. Dude

    They're...PRAYING...oh no, how unusual...sound the alarm...they must be planning on blowing us all up!!!

    We don't know it was "loud." The story says they prayed "out loud," simply meaning actually spoken. There is nothing wrong with this. Who is to judge what is "normal" behavior? They were not "chanting" in the aisles. It seems people will freak out at anything.

    We could just as easily ask people not to have stupid conversations in public either, but that is not our right.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Craig

      What about the rest of the behavior? I'm sorry, it seems like the crew reacted just fine if you ask me.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  5. Mike

    Apologize?!?! APOLOGIZE!?!??! Are you kiddding me??!!? In their obvious arrogance they REFUSED to listen to the flight crew when they told them to fasten their belts?!?!? And they were displaying bizarre behavior for being on a plane??!?! Taze them, hog tie them and turn them over to local police when they arrive at their destination! Period.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • fermata

      honestly, i have never been on a plane where I have NOT witnessed blatant disregard for instructions to keep seatbelts fasted or not to get up and move around the plane. What about the people who don't turn off their electrical devices when asked? I just hope everyone who is jumping on the "they disobeyed & it's illegal" have never been the ones who just HAD to retrieve something from an overhead bin when it wasn't expressly permitted.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  6. Chris C.

    These guys thought they could display these types of behavior and nobody would care?!? This isn't a matter of religious tolerance or sensitivity ... it is a matter of common sense. These guys should have informed the crew BEFORE the flight took off.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  7. steve

    I have never flown on El Al, would be interesting to hear how they deal with passengers who don't follow flight attendant instructions related to seat belts etc.

    Apologies – none should be needed. The political correctness of the world has gone over the edge. The world has problems, people don't always understand – grow up and deal with it and quit crying about being mistreated

    March 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Jeff S

      I don't see this is a PC issue. I see this is people not being allowed to enjoy the right to practice the religion of their choosing at the time and place of their choosing.

      I guess its easy to ignore the freedom aspect of it. Freedom doesn't seem to mean much these days it seems.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  8. Marcie Neuman

    Maybe these three passengers were praying that God would give them some common sense.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  9. BMO

    For the "Friendly Skies" to remain "Friendly", I suggest the airlines allow prayer only upon notification from the pilot(s) of an impending crash landing. Problem solved!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • vor

      To BMO....Freakin' made me LOL. Good One.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  10. stevec

    These clowns were told to sit down and buckle up. They had no business standing, or otherwise making a commotion. The airline did not need to apologize to them. They should have been booted from the flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Angel

      Am sorry but i couldnt help picture your statement in my mind. Pilot stops in the middle of the air and the 3 jewish guys thrown off!!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  11. Eduardo

    Why did these guys feel the need to conduct a prayer service during take-off? Couldn't they have done this in private before/after their journey? I’m all for being culturally sensitive, but it just seems like these guys should have known that their actions might cause alarm to others on the plane

    March 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  12. Esteb

    I can appreciate religious ritual and its importance to those who practice it. But if you aren't prepared to fully explain yourself when on an airplane these days, which it appears these gentlement did not do, then no apologies need be given by the airline. The airline needs to be more sensitive to the 150 or so other passengers than they do to the three practicing their ritual.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  13. John

    Why do Jews even need to pray? Aren't they the chosen ones? I thought they are suppose to have express ticket to God.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Mark

      Antisemite.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • rational

      Jesus prayed...and He was God. chew on that...

      March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • tim620

      @rational, You are right. Jesus prayed and He was God and He was a Jewish man. (more to chew on)

      March 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  14. twiddly

    This is just absurd.
    There is NO reason for anyone to subject their personal religious beliefs to a captive audience.
    It is incredibly rude and thoughtless.
    If I were on that flight I would walk over and fart in their faces, and tell them "oh, I am just praying to the divine fart; surely you don't have a problem with that?".

    March 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • greenbird321

      You sound really tolerant and enlightened. /sarcasm.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Dude

      Wrong. Are you rude and thoughless for having a conversation that no one else cares about?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  15. Mary Martha Catherine O.

    "Unusual" behavior??? Adult Jewish males have only been required to pray this way at certain specific times of day for, oh, about 5000 years. How long should it take the newer religions to notice?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Steve

      Mary, I'm 33 and have never seen them pray. I could certainly understand if people were caught off guard, but like I said earlier, just tell the flight attendants you are going to be praying during the flight so you don't alarm anyone. How hard is that?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • nutmeg

      If you don't know anyone Jewish nor study religion, you would have no clue.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • rational

      If they'd followed rabbi Jesus teaching to not make a show of prayer publically this wouldn't have happenned.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • LariSpitler

      Disobeying flight attendants and chanting out loud when repeatedly asked to stop without providing some sort of explanation is out of the ordinary. I don't care if you are praying or having a conversation. No one on the plane wants to hear it.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Hey idiot

      Some of us live in AMERICA, while I do accept all forms of prayer, seeing something like what they did would have scared me, red the article dumba**. See what all they did.

      Everyone on that plane had a right to be scared. If you have to pray at a specific time, schedule another flight and stay home and do it.

      It's not that they were praying it's the things they did while doing it. Learn to read.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • bluedog47

      If 3 muslim's were praying the outcome would have been different.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Jeff S

      @Steve

      Do you think telling the flight attendants would have really helped? After all, the actual terrorists could tell the flight attendants the same thing. Being vigilant is not the same as oppressing freedom. I guarantee, you can be vigilant without oppressing individual freedom.

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

      Thank you Mary Martha Just when I think all americans are ignorant and intolerant I read a post from someone like youl. I was raised baptist and am now an atheist and I know of this religious practice. How does one not? I dont think I have ever been on a plane when I didn't hear or see someone praying, especially in turbulence. It's okay I guess if they are praying to your god?

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

      They should do their praying before the board the plane. Airplanes are a vessel for transportation of people and cargo – not a place of worship. I have a higher power too, but I don't have to make a big scene in front of others in order to communicate with mine.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Kim

    It's a shame that we are such a Godless Nation that the idea of public prayer is scary. We are also a WILDLY ignorant Nation not to know what Tefillins are!! Heck, I'm a black woman from Indiana and I know what they are....

    March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Liar Patrol

      No you aren't.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      Would you be singing the same tune if they were Muslim?
      Jews, Christians, Muslims... they're all praying to the same god.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • bill

      Good for you Kim, you know what the small black bozes are!
      But the praying passengers should have explained what they were doing to the crew, and not just demand that the rest of the people on the plane accept whatever they were doing and take them at face value. Sorry, but it sounds like they didn't want to accomodate the others.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • RL Turn

      Well Kim, if ur black u probably know some Pentecostals and Baptists. If either started 'shoutin' in the aisles and speaking in tongues the Air Marshal on board would have shot them. Forget about it they were Muslim, the Marshal wouldn't have gotten a clear shot from half the plane stomping on them!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Lou

      Kim, it isn't a matter of being informed or not. But, can you imagine a flight where everyone is doing some part of their religious rituals during a flight? Can you imagine – a couple of people beheading a chicken in the name of Santeria, others doing Hari Krishna chanting, some others whipping their backs doing penitence, etc. Do you call that tolerable or a mad house. I believe that everyone has a right to practice their religion, but respecting the rest of the people around them.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • STEVE

      Its not about being Godless and/or the right to pray. Its common sense that tells any rational human that praying aloud on an airplane will raise some brows. NOT TO MENTION having boxes with tape and wire strapped to your body. Same common sense that tells me not to walk into a bank with my legaly bought and owned ski mask around my face.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Ronit

      @Steve – until reading your post I was feeling very strongly that these men praying was no big deal, and that the airlines over reacted. As a Jew, I know that these men are mandated to wrap Teffilin each morning as part of their prayers, and o them this was not a choice. But the others on the flight do not necessarily know what Teffiln are or what this daily commandment involvs. Your compariison to wearing a skii mask to a bank and thinking nothing of it woke me up! Now I have changed my opinion of this occurance. While these men had the right to pray openly during the flight, they most certainly could have been more anticipatory and publicly spirited and warned the flight attendants! Having the right to do something, and even being IN the right to do it, doesnt meant we cant put ourselves in someone else's shoes and give a little "heads up" so that everyone's feelings are taken into account!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Jeff S

      @Steve...so wearing a ski mask into a bank is bad?

      Granted it would raise my awareness if someone walked into my bank while I was there wearing a ski mask, but I wouldn't jump to conclusions. Same if someone was praying on the plane. Personally I think the odds that I will be on the plane with someone willing to blow it up are so slim it wouldn't be the first thing that came to mind.

      Last I checked praying on a plane was still legal, as was walking into a bank wearing a ski mask. Freedom is not about feeling comfortable. Accepting freedom sometimes requires us to feel awkward as does the violation of freedom. Sometimes its uncomfortable like having some guy you hate stand up and speak his mind.

      Don't cheapen freedom because you are scared to accept what that it means.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Get a clue dude

      @Jeff S – Are you serious? You wouldn't be freaked out if a guy in a full ski mask walked into a bank while you were depositing your paychecks? You realize there are limitations to the freedoms we have, right? It's not just flat-out freedom, cut & dried? You can't yell fire in a crowded theatre, for instance (unless it's on fire, obviously) – that's a limitation to freedom of speech that we have. This isn't about being uncomfortable around people who are different from us, this is about operating in a new world with a new reality. You don't mess around on airplanes these days, whether that means refraining from jokes about a bomb on board (are you gonna cry about that too if they kick you off the plane for making a joke?), or adjusting your prayer habits (I'm sure God will understand), you do your part to maintain calm. It's about common sense, and it's about the fact that an airplane could potentially be turned into a death vehicle for 200+ people – people of all nationalities, races, creeds, and languages. That is something that everyone is afraid of now thanks to 9/11 (regardless of whether or not it's going to happen again, people will be afraid of it until the last generations that witnessed 9/11 are dead), and if your intentions are not to blow up the airplane, why not go above and beyond the call of duty to get that message across?

      March 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  17. TonyInNYC

    I just hope I don't have to sit on a plane while the Westboro Baptist Church conducts their religious rituals out loud during turbulence.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • rational

      out of respect to baptists and churches, let's just call them Westboro.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Karina

      @rational? Out of respect for Muslims and Islam, lets just call them terrorists? What you don't want your religion associated with the crazies but you want to associate other religions with their crazies?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  18. Ally Buster

    By the way, I am NOT jewish or muslim or arab- but I am an airline pilot.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  19. Rob

    These guys should have gotten tazed on the plane. I understand they are well within their right to pray whenever they want to, but have a little common sense. Praying in another language on a plane in these days is just stupid. These morons are actually lucky to have not gotten tazed.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • stevec

      You're right on this one – common sense should have prevailed. When the airline crew says "sit down and stay seated" they should be in a position to enforce this. If someone believes they need to pray whenever they feel like it – they need to drive or take a bus.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Mark

      Why not just shoot them? They might survive tazing?
      Where have we gotten in our country?
      Because of ignorance we "taze" someone?
      And what if you do something I don't understand or am afraid of, do I have the right to taze you?
      This is still America, thank God and we do have freedom of speech and religion.
      Judaism is a tolerant religion which embraces the values Americans hold dear.
      Where you come from, I don't know.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • KawiMan

      Agreed.

      Abarrant behavior such as this from any passenger should have been met with tasing, being hogtied, and then being delivered to the authorities upon the destination arrival.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • tim620

      How do you define "another language". English is foreign in some places. So I prayed in "another language" when I have flown on non-American airlines. Maybe you should be tazed for not being open to other languages and cultures.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • fermata

      imagine if they'd been reciting catholic mass in latin... the horror!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Jeff S

      Holy cow...what is everyone afraid of?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  20. Ren

    Is it so hard for religious people of any denomination to not pray out loud in an airplane? Nothing against your beliefs, but I would be annoyed if someone, from any religion, started praying out loud next to me on an airplane. It's a sealed metal tube, nowhere to go, please be custeous and pray silently.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Ren

      I menat "curteous".

      March 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Jim

      Its "courteous". Jesus Christ.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Dude

      Wow, now judgmental. Maybe they would be annoyed hearing you speak in public. Doesn't mean you shouldn't.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Craig

      No, you meant "courteous"

      March 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Miles

      You spelled it incorrectly both times. Courteous.

      It would be courteous of you to show more understanding of people different from yourself. When in public, you *may* be forced to hear what other people say and do, and prayer is a natural part of human life.

      Of course, it would have also been courteous for these gentlemen to inform the crew and fellow passengers of what they're doing rather than hiding behind some thin veil of religious superiority to behave oddly compared to modern Western behavior while on a commercial flight.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Mark

      How about someone sitting next to you speaking? Maybe they shouldn't do that either, as it may annoy you. Better yet, how about breathing?
      Even worse, they could eat and chew loudly, completely annoying you.
      How about a little tolerance for other people. Religious Jews certainly are no threat and not terrorists. Your ignorance is no excuse for intolerance and hate.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Ren

      LOL, I just can't type today!! Yes, I meant courteous!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Hannah

      The whole point here is that they prayer has to be said allowed by thier custom. To be curteous they try to do it low and it comes out as a murmur and scares people who do not know about other religions. There are certain times a day prayers have to be said with certain religions.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Hannah

      Whoops... "out loud" not allowed

      March 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Jesus Christ

      did someone call me?

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

      LMFAO@Jesus Christ

      March 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • prohumanity

      Asking an orthodox Jew to wait with his prayers until after the flight is just like asking him to have some bacon "just today"- no can do.
      Now, I wasn't there so I can't testify on behalf of either side, but I'm appalled by the nasty, negative, anti-religious, and plain anti-semetic comments that this story generated. You have to ask yourself if this is really about 3 dudes on a plane acting different, or perhaps this was just an excuse to shower us with hatred.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • prohumanity

      People, Asking an orthodox Jew to wait with his prayers until after the flight is just like asking him to have some bacon "just today"- no can do.
      Now, I wasn't there so I can't testify on behalf of either side, but I'm appalled by the nasty, negative, anti-religious, and plain anti-semetic comments that this story generated.
      You have to ask yourself if this is really about 3 dudes on a plane acting different, or perhaps this was just an excuse to shower us with hatred.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:58 am |
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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.