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. To all atheists

    I feel really sorry for you. What an emptiness you must have. 🙁

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

      Are you always this judgmental? Keep it to yourself. Just because I don't need childish fairy tales to get through life doesn't mean my life is empty. That religious people need fairy tales means that they never grew up...I feel sorry for you.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  2. jim

    Rev 3:9

    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  3. Mee

    This is bs, why the apology? If it were Muslims- I guarantee there would be absolutely no apology.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  4. bryan

    Why were they doing this on an airplane? Ecspecially after 911...they wanted to cause a comotion. They wanted pubilicity. They wanted to scare people. Put them on the no-fly list!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Tracy Hayes

    They needed to sit their butts down and adhere to safety procedures like everyone else. Their behavior was irresponsible and they did not deserve an apology whatsoever!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  6. tom

    Orthodox Judiasm is very strict. These men were just following the law of Moses as it is written in the Torah


    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  7. Craig

    I have to comply with the rules when I am on an airplane why not them. Does your religion mean that you are alllowed to suddenly congregate in the lavratory or near the lavratory? The airline was right to challenge them. Society will take care of them, heck, they already have a news story about how "Anti-Orthodox Jewish" Alaskan Air is and an apology. Welcome to 2011.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  8. stupidman

    They should have thrown them out of the plane from above!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  9. Tom

    I'm not a happy flier to begin with and seeing and hearing 3 guys babbling on my flight would surely send me over the edge. I definitely understand the need to have a silent prayer before take off. To make a public display of it is stupid and inconsiderate. The guys were both, regardless of their religious faith.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  10. ryan

    so, if some guy started talking to his imaginary pet rabbit next to him quite loudly on a plane, and security was alerted, would the airline apologize then too?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  11. Jennifer

    Ok, while the airline crew is getting their TRAINING, how about someone who is strapping something to them in a prayer ritual not commonly observed to WAKE UP and realize that this is going to make people nervous? On an AIRLINE? Have you been living under a rock for 10 years?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  12. bgl

    If these were muslims, they would still be in jail

    March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  13. Norm

    God: Think I'll drop a plane outta of the sky. Been awhile since I did that. But first, let's rattle them a little...

    God: Ok... now that they're good and scared...
    Angel: Hold on, God. Three guys just strapped boxes with paper in them to their bodies. You can't blow up the plane.
    God: Really? Who says?
    Angel: The rules.
    God: RATS!

    This is how silly religious people seem to atheists.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  14. Jay

    I am all for freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but I kid you not, if I found myself a passenger on a flight and witnessed the actions of these three men as described above, I would do my best to monkey-stomp them senseless. Sensitivity training is a two way street. These men should have had enough common sense to know how their actions would appear to people unfamiliar with their rituals. I value my life more than their right to scare the hell out of me.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  15. Michael Katz

    An apology is needed from the three "business men", not the airline. Everytime I'm in that situation, i pray silently and tell everyone around me what i'm about to do.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |

    Do we need freedom of religion? The answer is yes. Do we need to scare people? The answer is No, particularly when we are in the same ship/plane. I guess we need from time to time to have interfaith discussions, where similar issues should be discussed by different leaders who clarify these kind of religious matters to the community at large and find the best solution to fulfill people safety as well as worshippers peace in mind. I do pray in planes, very quietly to a point that even my follow passengers don't notice that. I don’t know if I am wrong or right but for sure I have a good reason to do so, particularly if I can’t afford a private jet or private yacht.
    Anyway, it’s an isolated issue and hopefully people will find a way how to balance between rituals in places of worship versus in public places.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  17. NYJew

    It's not religiously insensitive to ask people to stop behavior that's threatening on a human level, especially not in the context of being 30,000 feet in the air in a hunk of metal and fuel. So are we OK with Muslims pulling out prayer mats and starting chants. No we'd all be pretty freaked out for obvious reasons. In the same way these guys need to understand that strapping a box to your head and chanting is pretty freaky behavior that scares others. I don't think it's unfair to ask that they confine it to their homes and synagogues.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  18. ryan

    god is imaginary.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • dave

      God is real, you are imaginary.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • terry

      How do you know?

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

    Is anyone aloud to conduct ritual's ten miles up,and put people at some risk by not sitting down.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • dave

      Ten miles? Get your conversions right please.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Dave is god

      Dave likes to correct people. Bow to Dave.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  20. GA Pelina

    Imagine if all the flyers are doing their rituals while flying. No apolygies. I don't care what religions you practiced, if you're flying you don't owned a space. So keep quite.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • NYJew

      Exactly my point. Let's make airspace non-religious. Who knows, we might even discover that it's a better way of living, and eventually decide to bring the same policy to earth.

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

      I think I know what you are trying to say... but your third grade writing level makes it hard to know for sure.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Dave - Mom is ready for dinner

      Dave, your mom said come up from the basement, time to eat, stop chatting with your friends.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:59 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.