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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. penny

    I commend what the stewardess did! Bravo! Why should the airline apologize...those people must have known how stupid that was!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  2. doc

    anyone else will be arrested.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  3. Derek

    I'm sorry but you need to schedule your flights around your prayer times. If you can't do that, then you shouldn't fly. Expecially if your prayer must me said out loud and if you have tape boxes to yourself. You need to be accomodating of the airlines and their regulations. NOT the other way around. If it is not yet time to get out of your seat. SIT DOWN. I agree with Al Sanchez. I feel like this was a test...

    March 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  4. joe america

    Well they must have decided some sort of a flight or protection, but I am not familiar with their teachings.

    All I can say 1st Amendment rules here so long they were not hurting anyone, and if it was the above mentioned prayer, someone should appreciate it.

    I believe PPL lost that thought along time ago.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  5. JL

    I don't think that the crew needs education, I think that any group of people of any religion, including my own, that starts conducting religious rituals out loud during mid flight, where others can't even move away, and have no choice but to be subjected to the rituals... those are the people that need education and they should have learnt some manners at home... that is just so uncorteous and imposing to others. Can't they wait till they land and do it provately, or at least in a place where people have the choice to move away if they want to?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  6. badger5079

    Anybody who is getting all hot and bothered about the right of these Jews to religious freedom should ask themselves if they would say the same if these guys were Muslims.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  7. nowhere

    if they were another religion they would have been arrested and sent to gitmo. not just asked questions on why they ignored the flight crew and intimidated the passengers.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  8. Sam

    I agree, if it had been Muslims no apoligies would have been issued and rightly so in these times. But since its Jews yes the airline just like our policitians will bend over backwards to apologize. I think no apology for any religion needed here.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  9. badger5079

    If Muslims did this, they would be in Guantanamo and most of America would cheer. However, since they are Jews, the airline has to offer an apology for startling the lovely men. Never mind that they were praying loudly with wires and small plastic boxes strapped to themselves and refusing to obey flight attendants.
    Any Muslims who did this would be better off they had never been born but some Jews do it and the ADL comes in to scold the airline for not having greater understanding of this particular strain of desert-based lunacy.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  10. Toano

    Don't know why the airline apologized. These 3 behaved like complete idiots. This has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with foresaking common sense and behaving like fools. I'm tired of hearing these zealots justifying their idiotic behavior on "religious" grounds. Hey idiots. Ever heard of 9/11????

    March 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  11. Marty in MA

    you do not perform ANY religious rituals on an airplane. Are those guys meshuggah?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  12. mark

    Surely if flight attendents were trained in security different religious practises would be taught.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  13. craig

    These jews need to keep the odd chanting and wire boxes in private. Not in an airplane.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • mike

      i agree. I can't even bring a bottle of water through security, and these guys have boxes with wires?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  14. whatever

    be afraid..be very afraid..if its not english..be afraid..if its not white skinned be afraid..your airlines are pathetic. your population is more pathetic your country sucks. oh yeah, dont forget..be afraid!!!!

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

      What makes you think these jews weren't white?? and second of all, they were chanting and had boxes with wires on there chests on an AIRPLANE, you ignorant fool!! They're lucky they weren't jumped and tied up in the bathroom. Keep the chanting and weird religious crap in your own homes.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Troy

      Well-said. Americans are whiny little babies and they keep getting worse and worse. They can't handle plain old truth and everything has to be buttered up to spare their little feelings. Cowards.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  15. john

    Keep your prays to yourselfs.....weridos!

    March 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  16. steve jaklitsch

    For renn after your stupid comment I would not want to be on a plane that your flying. Smarten up

    March 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  17. Morons

    WHAT MORONS WOULD DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT, GIVEN ALL THE TENSIONS ABOUT FLYING AND TERRORISM? JERKS.

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

      damn skippy. and if the passengers jumped them because they refused to listen to the flight attendants then lawsuits and antisemitism would have been all over the news. NO EXCUSE FOR NOT LISTENING TO FLIGHT ATTENDANTS. After that point you are fair game for a beating.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • law and order

      "Sir, please sit down".....no? Then restrain them and worry about the fallout later on. better to be safe than sorry.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  18. Alberto

    I'm glad they are going to train the flight attendants on cultural and religious diversity. I also hope that they will be trained on the various different cultural and religious variations. Familiarity is key. Ignorance breeds paranoia, stereo-typing, and grave misunderstandings.

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

      Really? Train flight attendants on EVERY type of culture/religion just so members of that culture can perform a RITUAL on a PLANE!?! DO IT WHEN THE PLANE LANDS!!! Absolutely NO need to train flight attendants like that. It's disgusting that this should be an "acceptable" thing to do on a plane. Its not. Sit there and buckle your seat belt just like everyone else.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  19. Ally

    What these gentlemen did was plain arrogant and disrespectful no matter what religion they come from. Flying is already a very intense experience and they used a time when safety instructions where being given out to perform this ritual? This does not make any sense! Why did they choose to do this on the plane and not in their hotel rooms or in the airport prior to boarding the flight? In a post 911 era disturbances of any kind on an aircraft strikes terror in the hearts of even the most traveled passenger. This sect is asking for sensitivity when it comes to their religious traditions, but what about the rights of the passengers around them. If they had any respect or common sense they would have notified the flight officials before hand to prevent any misunderstandings during the flight. Last time I checked respect is s two way street NO MATTER WHAT RELIGION YOU ARE FROM!

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

      Agreed!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Troy

      Oh shut up. Everything you just stated is fear based ignorant garbage and quite frankly I'm sick and tired of people like you wrapping yourselves in the American flag while spitting on everything it stands for.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Kelly

      Wow, Troy. Calm down. You're absolutely right, but you don't need to be so harsh about it.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Troy

      Yes I do. Too many people are coddled too much and they need harshness. This baby crap has gone too far. Stop being cowards. You're embarrassing the US.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Fred IV

      As a religious Jew, I really understand your issues, and while traveling, I do my best to be private about my religious observance. It makes me very uncomfortable praying in public as I know there are many pairs of eyeballs on me. However, the prayers are time-bound, and required 3 times a day. Especially on international, or long flights, it's sometimes impossible to pray before or after, as the window will be missed.

      If I'm forced to pray on a flight, I do not stand – although, one of the prayers does require standing, many Rabbis are of the opinon it's counter-productive to show respect to G-d by standing if it will make observers uncomfortable and cause a desecration of Him. Additionally, while praying, it is disrespectful to interrupt. Think of this: "I'm going to interrupt a conversation with G-d to talk to a person?"

      Flying is no fun, fears are high, and people are – Thankfully! – watchful and wary. I don't know the whole story, but it sounds like the 3 men could have done some explaining and educating, and could have been sensitive of the people around them. I'm surprised the airline wasn't aware of the practice, but it's not all their fault.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • JCit'sPolitical

      I agree. Totally arrogant and insensitive behavior. Modern day Israel is a democracy, these guys knew better.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Andrew

      I don't think it's fair for you to make such demands of others, especially when it comes to religious traditions.

      As a protestant Christian, my own prayer life is rather relaxed–something I can practice in private and at my own leisure. There are many other religions that don't offer this same flexibility however, such as Islam and Orthodox Judaism. The faithful of such religions carry the burden of some rituals that demand to be practiced in very particular ways, sometimes at specific times; a burden that may require them to practice their prayers in public places on occasion, and which they believe ultimately exalts and benefits them beyond the earthly measure of the inconvenience. If the traveling public is expected to tolerate all manners of dress and obnoxious speech and behavior from all of the other travelers while on board, why take such issue with folks who engage in a peaceful religious practice? It occurs to me that a little bit of education would have gone a long way in this case, to put people's minds at ease and keep them from freaking out unnecessarily about observing centuries-old traditions.

      All that aside however, I will clearly and unequivocally state that I think it was irresponsible and inappropriate for those men to have stored their religious articles in the overhead bins instead of keeping them on their person and then to have violated the "fasten seatbelt" order, as well as to have congregated around the lavatories for any reason during the flight. Those behaviors are simply inexcusable, as they do nothing to protect, ensure, or enhance the actual religious practices themselves, and are strictly forbidden for anyone under current air travel rules.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • derp

      @Troy

      Blow me! When somebody's mythical ritual screws up my flight they have infringed on my rights. Keep your stupid myth chants off of our plane so that we can get to where we need to go without fear of somebody blowing the plane up. The morons who pulled this stunt should be on the "No Fly" list. Religion is a choice. If you chose to take part in a religion whose rituals disrupt a commercial flight, you don't get to fly any more.

      March 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  20. Jewish

    this sucks. Bad idea to pray in public. especially that prayer. again though its all about degrees. I am reform/don't practice. I guess its always bad to do a highly visible religious activity. It scares people.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Mr Commen Sense

      It would have been courteous if the Jewish Gentlemen, who are usually sensative to other person acting different, if they had realized they stood out and informed the stewardess of what they were going to do.

      March 17, 2011 at 8:01 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.