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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. Linda

    Education is key here Jew, Muslim, Christian, or other. If we have a bit of common knowledge into each others religion then nothing will shock or scare each other on flights or anywhere else. People pray in different ways. Some my be able to pray quietly without notice and cover all the requirements of their prayers, others have time requirements which make it difficult to do outside of long travel. Some require movements, while do not cause any problems if people understand, do scare people who are ignorant of the process. What could have happened here is the passengers could have let the flight attendant know what they were about to do beforehand. I am shocked they got an apology though because Muslims never get such a thing for their prayers. This is also not the 1st time they have stopped Jews from praying on planes though. Most Muslims will do their very best not to have to pray while flying because they already know how crazy thing could be taken in such cases. Myself, I chose to no longer fly at all because there is just too much trouble traveling with a disabled child and being Muslim at the same time. My son has Autism and the attendants seem crazy if he makes any noise (cannot be helped). So the flight attendants need training in areas of religion and special needs...hummmm

    March 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  2. GA

    I'm sorry the airline felt the need to appease these insensitive troublemakers by apologizing! I'm a religious person, but come one folks, there's a time and a place – if for no other reason, there should not have been a need to force the 'ceremony' on other passengers and for FOUR HRS? The only fault here is with the thoughtless rabbis (and I respect their religion completely). What WERE they thinking? Or NOT thinking?!!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Kelly

      Rabbis?? Show us where the word rabbi is mentioned in the article? You're obviously someone who enjoys stereotyping people. Moron.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  3. Chang

    These three skunks would have been tackled, yoked up, ducked up and placed safely back in their seat until arrival. I know of this particular prayer....Do it before, after or in the lavratory...At least inform the crew of the shenangains before getting going. Arrogant chumps indeed, they knew what they were doing. Each of the three needs one quick sharp rattling smack in the mouth and a "GoodDaySir". btw don't eat the peanuts.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  4. R

    The airlines doesn't owe anyone an apology, these people are idiots for doing this "ritual" on the airplane. Most likely this was done to intentionally create this exact situation.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Pat

      R, please tell us that you're not really this stupid?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Pat

      Or are you just a bigot?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  5. Disciple

    The lack of intolerance and complete lack of cultural awareness in this country is really sad. The prayer box described in the article contains a text from the Jewish Bible (Tanach) specifically Deuteronomy 6:4. It is one of Judaism's most sacred texts and it reminds the people that they only have one god. In hebrew it says "Shema Israel Adonai enohenu Adonai eda" this text is translated to our Christian Bibles as "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.". If you had been paying attention in bible school you might have rememberd this.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  6. Robo

    Oh yeah, foreign language = scary. English = safe. Religious = scary. Chowing down on snickerbars = safe.

    The passengers were scared – ok, let them be scared. Live life scared, who cares. They don't need to do anything, there was never any real danger. "standing guard" right – frankly the litany of offensives just shows how unreliable eyewitnesses are – they saw things that didn't even happen.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  7. bah

    One day, people will evolve into intelligent beings and laugh at their ape-like ancestors who whorshipped invisible beings that live in the sky.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  8. volsocal

    I would like to apologize on behalf of Alaska Airlines for being too apologetic.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  9. Rolph

    We need to put god and religion in it's proper place. That's right next to Santa and the Easter bunny

    March 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  10. David

    Anything different to the US Based Crew in this day of terrorists looking for any way to inflict harm upon the flying public needs to be looked at with caution. The Crew did the correct thing. The Crew has to be correct 100% of the time when it comes to security, a terrorist only needs to be effective once. Perhaps this time all is well – but if I was on that flight, it would have bothered me also.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  11. Moab Biker

    Unbelievable that people would actually comment here saying that these three morons are being treated unfairly or that anyone who points out how offensive and stupid their actions are is somehow anti-semetic. Anyone who thinks that sensitivity training is the answer to this scenario is a first class idiot. I hope these three guys get what is coming to them. They acted like real jerks. Too bad Alaska Airlines has no... how do you say it... "chutzpah?"

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

      if anything you were saying was true, you might have a point. But as it is, you don't.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • big tuna

      .....these three jerks should have sat down and shut up....
      ...if whatever god they pray to is going to punish them for not acting out this one time...
      ....then that god is a jerk and needs to go also....

      March 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  12. .

    .

    March 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  13. displeased

    "It's because religions are bleeding members that the majority of the airline saw what was occurring as a death ritual instead of someone silently practicing their faith." by Billy.

    Billy, don't you think their ignoring instructions, their timing of their ritual, their location, and their unusual behavior (two of them using the restroom while one "stands guard") isn't justified to have people concerned? If they had done this in a more appropriate setting, I would imagine most people would recognize it as a harmless prayer.

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

      I bet if you were allowed to carry a concealed handgun with you on commercial airplanes, you wouldn't be so afraid of people praying.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  14. abd

    The airlines didn't apologize becasue they want to aplogize, they apologized becasue they were forced to apologize, did you forget who is controlling this country !!??

    March 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Rolph

      That's right abd
      there are 3 Jewish tailors and an old woman making gefilte fish in a secret room in the White House pulling all the strings

      March 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  15. Jeffision

    It's unrealistic to expect airlines personnel to know the intricacies of every religion. Is it asking to much for people to keep their religious craziness to themselves? Why do they insist on forcing it into every public situation? And then they demand that everyone be familiar with it. Such arrogance.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Am

      I feel sorry for the flight attendents having to deal with every nuance of public display.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  16. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Of course, if it were muslims praying, the airline would not have apologized. In fact, they would have been considered heros for stopping the practice of muslim prayers.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Robo

      Unless nobody on the flight was talking at all, these men had the right to talk too – even if it was to "God."

      You all act like they were in a library or something. Good grief.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Pumbaa

      If it was Muslims praying the airline would probably give them free tickets to Mecca and apologize for bothering them. You can't even draw a cartoon about Mohammad without putting your life in danger.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  17. Jeff Lebowski

    Religion, booze, drugs........all good in moderation but if you get hooked you turn psyco.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Dlasdj

      You also turn into a bad speller. Haha.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  18. Rolph

    I don't think that loud prayer and unusual behavior should be allowed on a airline while in flight.
    What if terrorists used the same gimmick dressed as orthodox jews?
    I say no to this practice- ban religious practice on airlines in flight no matter what they say about the right to practice your religion. This is not the place or time.
    Would they do it during a broadway play. It's almost like yelling fire in a crowded theater

    March 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • always2sides

      Some religions pray on set time tables. It is their right to pray but should have been more cooperative with the flight crew.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Am

      Absolutely! Why should the other passengers be subjected to that loud noise. Babies crying is one thing, but not prayer. The next thing we know every religious person will be competing for airtime.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Robo

      I'm sorry Rolph but you have trouble with English yourself! LOL

      "out loud" doesn't mean "loud" – it means audible – not silent.

      The passengers, ALL OF THEM, were not sitting on the plane in silence. Some were talking to each other – and apparently some saying prayers.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Max128

      Terrorists are not going to make a big show of praying or call attention to themselves. They'll just blow the plane up.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • TLamar

      If this happens with Jewish religion, then what can be said if Muslims want to fully engage in their prayer rituals on a plane. If we allow one religious group to do this, then we are opening up a can a worms and lawsuits if one group is allowed and another isn't; because, we feel that some have rights to participate and others don't have that same right.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Robo

      @TLamar, you are joining in the confusion.

      Everyone does have the right to talk on the plane.
      Whether to your neighbor or in prayer, doesn't matter, and they've always had this right, and it doesn't make your more or less safe.

      It's just your perception that Muslims are going to identify themselves as obvious terrorists – your perception has nothing to do with your actual safety or lack thereof.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Rogert

      Talking out loud, is what you do when someone can hear you, you aren't mouthing your words, talking in pantomime.
      Praying out loud, is exactly the same thing, its talking. Instead of talking to the person in the seat next to you, you are talking to nobody at all.

      Well, that depends upon your point of view vis-a-vis God.

      But some of you ares so strongly anti-religious that you aren't getting down to the heart of the matter. Unless you can make what someone things inside their head a crime, you can't really, as a practical matter, out law 'prayer'. You can't judge why someone is talking – even in English, let alone in a foreign language you don't understand.

      No, the only thing you can do is allow talking – or not allow it.

      No talking on the plane? That's what you want genius?

      Thankfully complete morons aren't running the country (close, but not quite that bad yet).

      So, talking will continue on the plane. But if you dimwits want to volunteer to be silent – PLEASE FEEL FREE.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  19. Jay

    Sure, religious freedom. However, even Muslims are not getting up when they should be seated to pray in the aisles.

    Common sense should apply to Orthodox Jews. It is common sense that such activities will get other passengers nervous. God will understand if you wait to pray till you get on the ground. Or....do it silently. A flight is no time for complicated rituals.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Tolu

      I agree with you 100%!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Robo

      @Jay, there are two factors that you missed. One, as a person who has flown before, I can tell you that people get things out of the overhead compartment – this is ordinarily not a concern, but made one, by a crew that was actually concerned about something entirely different – the appearance of religious men on the flight.

      The crew also had fantasies about one of them 'standing guard' at the bathroom. But considering the fact, that absolutely nothing out of the ordinary was really happening – there was not real danger at all – can't you understand that the crews version of events, was just the way human memory works – fabricated to support their perceptions? They were afraid, so they saw things that didn't happen.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Dlasdj

      There's nothing complicated about what they were doing.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  20. ieat

    these guys should have warned the airline in advance. People are so freaked out about weird airplane behavior these days. I'm not surprised that the flight attendants did what they did.

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

      Actually this is not the case. Profiling all non english speaking persons on Alaska Airlines was implimented by Sarah Palin and the new governor has not recinded the policy. It's not the Airlines fault it is a gubenatorial directive of all airlnes and ports in Alaska.

      And you if you believe that I have some land for sale. 😛

      March 15, 2011 at 5:08 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.