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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. REALLY??

    Orthodox Jew does not equal Terrorist......however, doing what they did, against the rules on an airplane = IDIOTS, 3 of them. It’s not a religious argument, it's a stupidity one.

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

      oh please... the fasten your beat thing is total nonsense. If its so dangerous why is the flight crew walking about the cabin? The safety of the plane was enhanced by the prayer from these three gentleman. AA should be thanking them. 🙂

      March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  2. Common Sense

    Just like a jew!

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

      and you are just like a jew hater.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  3. jimjones

    The passengers should have been jailed for stupidity. I guess they couldn't have done this "ritual" anywhere but on an airplane. I would have sued Alaska Airlines if they had not done something.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Joe

      You should be jailed for posting a stupid comment. Their prayer is harmless to the plane and no they could not have done the prayer anywhere else but on the plane – prayer is done based on the time of day. If you had more then two neurons firing perhaps you would understand that.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  4. just dont

    Here we go again, we need just stop, and think. But we dont not do that, we do have a right to pray at any time any where. But some think we cant do that.. Maybe you stop few a min your find what that maybe you are wrong

    March 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Troy

      Unfortunately, most Americans don't understand the very principles they claim they love enough to actually know what the heck you're talking about. They think that the freedom they have is only theirs and everyone has to bow to them.

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

      You misunderstand. No one is saying they don't have a right to pray. Are you saying that right trumps the law, or potential safety of the passengers? Would a loud prayer group be tolerated in, say, a movie theater? Some would argue that people talk in the movies all the time, but it's also true that loud groups are often ejected for the benefit of the other passengers. Disagreeing with you does not mean I value American principles, such as freedom of religion, any less than you. Use a little common sense.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  5. JL

    I think that an apology is definately in order... but from the 3 gentlemen... for their arrogance, their lack of respect to other passengers, and their complete lack of manners.... you don't force others to see and hear your religious rituals when they can't even move away... you do it privately, or in a place where others have a choice to at least move away if they don't want to see you practicing your religion out loud.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Troy

      Since when does your freedom to not believe in a particular religion or its practices trump others' right to believe and practice? That's a really stupid and unAmerican mindset. But then again, we are a nation of cowardly whiny babies.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  6. Vic

    Enough is enough! Are we paralzed by political correctness! We have two ongoing wars and are ground zero for every religious fanatic group in the world. They were taking a commercial flight, not in a place of worship! They also failed to obey flight attendant instructions during the flight. The airline acted appropriately and doesn't have to apologize or reach out to anyone! The three should be fined for being dumb. Keep your religion at home!

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

      Fine for being dumb? Seems to me it was the flight crew for being "dumb" or rather ignorant. Perhaps they should be fined. The men gave an explanation – the crew was just to "stupid" to sort it out. So what they were out of there seat – big deal. You mean to tell me passengers never leave their seat for the bathroom when the silly seat belt light is on? What a joke – that seat belt is there for a false sense of safety. Notice that passengers get one lap belt but flight crew personal get lap and double shoulder belts.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  7. nuffsaid!

    how come airlines dont apologize for treating muslims and sikhs the same way (you know, groups with turbans!)

    March 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  8. Troy

    It really is too bad that people actually believe that their ignorant fear of what the men were doing is justifiable reason to tell people of any religion when and where they can pray. In America, we have the majority of the American people actually spitting on the very principles of the country they proudly claim they love by telling people when and where they can pray - all out of fear - in America. Home of the brave....what a joke.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  9. Bill

    You mean to tell me not one person on the plane knew anything about Orthodox Jews? Their dress is rather distinctive, and it's not like the prayer rituals haven't been seen on the news in video of Jews at the Wailing Wall. The plane must have been full of people who don't know much beyond their own toes.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • ksoze

      It's pretty arrogant to assume that anyone who doesn't understand Orthodox Jewish prayer rituals is ignorant and does not know the world 'beyond their own toes'. We don't all watch Wailing Wall videos, and that doesn't make us intolerant. They should have explained their actions. It isn't insensitivity...just common sense.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  10. mario

    What ever happened to prayer in silence except in a place of worship?!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Bill

      Some prayer traditions and religions do not include silent prayer. For them, silent prayer is like not praying at all. Different from mine? Yeah. Does that make it wrong or bad? No.

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

    Please don't make this issue a personal issue; we are all human kind but with different ways of life, whether related to tradition or to religion. We should respect each other freedom as long as it doesn’t compromise other people’ freedom. Let’s keep this unique country a good example to other countries by our diversity, our freedom of speech and religion as long as it doesn’t step on other people right. So let’s take this mis-happening as an immunization for future generation by finding conciliating solution, instead of an up-roaring one.
    So give your suggestions for future solution to similar issues, thinking that may happen to a loved one, a colleague, someone from the same faith, or simply another human being you share similar values.
    Waiting for suggestions no fight anymore, OK!!!!!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  12. carlsbad84

    Why should Alaska Airlines apologize. Just the fact that they ignored orders to sit down and fasten seatbelts should have been enough to warrant the Flight Attendants actions. If the men had to pray at a certain time, schedule the flight accordingly. If they were just praying for their safety, then keep it quiet and have some respect for their fellow passengers. I have no problems with people praying, but their actions as reported ehre, certainly warranted the reactions of the flight crew. Had they simply prepared themselves in advance, had their prayer supplies ready before the flight left, and prayed to themselves, nothing would have happened.

    This political correctness BS has to stop, people need to learn to respect the privacy of those around them and all will be ok.

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

      You do know planes get delayed right? Perhaps they did schedule according and some event cause their plane to be in the air at a different time then what they planned.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  13. Joan

    It should not be the airlines having to learn every single rituals of every single religion. These men should have either prayed before or after the flight. The flight crew had every right to be concerned. Shame on these individuals for behaving in a manner that caused concern without in the least explaining themselves. It all may have been avoided had they done just that.

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

      Prayers are base on the time of day. Shame on the crew for being ignorant.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  14. ExcuseJew

    Teflilin boxes should be banned. They could easily be used to store contraband or weapons under the guise of religion. Praying aloud on a cramped plane is akin to forcing one's religion on others. The airline shouldn't be apologizing to these hoodlums. The religious zealots should be apologizing to the crew and passengers for causing unnecessary stress.

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

      Uhm, you do realize that these little box go through the xray scanner just like your carry on bags do. Maybe YOUR carry items should be banned because you too can smuggle things abord.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  15. Guest

    Why do you need all those equipments and public chanting to pray? Is God incapable of listening?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • really irritated

      Tradition is important to some people.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  16. SueU2

    I bet this will result in a nice little out of court settlement, probably the whole point of the exercise

    March 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • East Bay Chick

      I bet you're right. And it does come off as a bit of a stunt.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Joe

      I seriously doubt these guys want to do any more then just be there on way. grow up.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • East Bay Chick

      @Joe- Huh? Your reply doesn't make any sense.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  17. Peter E

    So... if it's Jewish passangers it becomes the airline's responsibility to be 'culturally sensitive' and be 'educated?' How about they use a little sensibility and conform to our safety standards, as well as the paranoia of our christian right. Everyone knows very well we are on the edge and will arrest anyone not conforming to our white anglo-saxon protestant culture, thanks to the paranoia of our religious right. They will use any excuse to demonize foreigners, or even American orthodox jews if they don't behave the way our right-wingers want them to behave. Do you know what our religious right would have said if it was three muslim men praying on board? Heck, do you know what they would have said if there were three muslim men even just walking around minding their own business ANYWHERE in America? They themselves would have called the police and demanded they be thrown into Gitmo, because three men gathering in America who are not white protestants must be conspiring.
    It's ugly, but that's the reality in America today. So please be sensible about it. Yes, you have the right to practice your own religion, but currently, due to American hysteria, that right is only valid in your own homes.
    Thanks christian right! Thanks for making America look like a panicky hysterical wimp!

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

      Hey Peter,

      The Christian right may be whackos but they are not responsible for making America a land of pathetic politically correct wimps!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • ShaneB

      I call BS on your rant. It is neither right wing nor Christian belief that led to a fear of being blown to bits.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • David in Seattle

      Most of you don't understand. Asking an Orthodox Jew to interrupt his prayers is asking him to say to G-d, can I put you on hold, I have another call here. Moreover, I have read about this same type of incident before on airplanes where FA's freak out when Orthodox Jews stand up as a group to pray. So this IS something the flight attendants should be trained on. (You don't say to G-d, do you mind if I just sit here while I pray - even Judge Judy requires the litigants to stand!)

      March 15, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Pilots4tress

      Peter, you are living in your own reality. You need help. The world is not out to get you... just your paranoia.. and your mind.

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

      Yes, they must follow our laws and customs. If they don't they will be arrested. When a flight attendant tells you to sit and you don't comply you are in violation of the law. Just like Madonna will not be performing in Saudi Arabia anytime soon. Why? Because her music and appearance is against the law and customs there. We follow their customs in their lands, and they WILL comply with ours when in our country.

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

      ShaneB – What YOU said!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • ksoze

      David in Seattle – Agree that you shouldn't put God on hold. But, can the prayers possibly be said in the terminal, or perhaps silently when in a situation such as this?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • karl

      Peter! Peter! Pumkin! Eater!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Tristan

      I want pumpkin!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  18. Anne

    If 3 men started praying aloud on a plane in Arabic with no further incident, they'd be carted off to Guantanamo Bay no questions asked, not issued public apologies.

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

      If Jews had been suicide bombing people for the past couple of decades, you'd have a point. The fact is that the vast majority of suicide attacks, hijackings, and other attacks on civilian populations are conducted by Muslims. You can't blame any security force for looking at them more closely. Don't blame profiling on those doing it, blame it on those that force it to be necessary.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  19. TheImmigrant

    I wish I were Jewish too...!

    If I, as a muslim, pulled that stunt with three friends on an airplane, I'm sure we'll still be in Federal prison.

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

      where you belong

      March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Double A

      You better believe it. I'm a Muslim too–and they watch me like a hawk. Didn't watch me too close when they shipped my butt to Iraq. If I pulled this, you think Alaska airlines would be apologizing to a Muslim? Hell no. Remember American Airlines tried to discriminate against that Muslim who happened to be a Secret Service Agent on his way to guard George Bush in Texas. 18 Muslim fanatics go crazy and the white world wants to balme every Muslim. How bout them white folk though? How many atrocities have they committed? I watch them very carefully and think we should have hearings on the radicalization of white folk.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • justin

      There is actually a case exactly like this one involving Muslims. The same exact thing happened. They were found to not be a threat and allowed to continue onto their final destination. Stop making assumptions! Maybe if you weren't a Muslim with a chip on their shoulder you wouldn't be treated as a Muslim with a chip on his shoulder.

      Besides, doesn't matter your religion or skin color. If you fail to follow directions on a plane (which is the law in Mexico and the U.S.), you will be treated as a criminal, because you have committed a crime. This has nothing to do with your skin color, gender, or religion. It has to do with your actions only.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Joe

      Double A – CAIR (that lovely group) would jump into the ring for you. Get real dude.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  20. njg_world

    Im not part of any religion but there is NO NEED to apologize!! for what? these guys did not follow directions, were chanting in an unfamiliar tongue and had wires and black boxes...um hello?? if these were muslims cnn would have reported an averted terrorist attack. quit changing the world to acoomodate these people – they are not exempt from the rules everyone else has to follow! ww2 is over

    March 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • David in Seattle

      There were no wires! They are thin leather straps. Also, if strange behavior is going to the bathrooms in pairs and taking stuff out of the overhead while the seatbelt light is on, 50% is of the plane exhibits stranger behavior.

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

      Clearly these men behaved arrogant and insensitively toward the flight crew and other passengers. What shocks me the most is that modern day Israel is a democracy, surely they knew better.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • gadian

      God can wait to hear his prayers. Out of sensitivity to others and to the protocols of air traffic these days, these observes needed to sit down and shut up like everyone else on the plane. They could've prayed in the terminal. They could pray when they land. But for the sake of expediency and decency, they should not have prayed during the flight. They can't expect everyone to understand what they're doing and they have to, realistically, know the level of paranoia. Praying that way regardless of those facts was irresponsible.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Pilots4tress

      @JCit'sPolitical – News Flash!!
      Most people behave arrogant and insensitively toward the flight crew and other passengers, no matter what religion or background. They get up when they're not supposed to and they need to use the bathroom. They don't care about the light being on because they're special. You are funny... 🙂

      March 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Logan

      Well said man. I totally agree.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • ksoze

      I agree. I certainly have no issue with prayer during flight (I pray silently at takeoff and landing), but the men could have explained their actions and saved everyone a lot of anxiety. You are absolutely correct that, had these been Muslims praying in such a fashion (out loud and in a foreign language), the reaction could've been far worse.
      These are the times we live in, sadly, thanks to terrorism.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • David in Seattle

      So what you are saying, that a devoutly religious person, who needs to pray at specific times, should believe that air traffic control is more important than G-d. (I by the way am an agnostic, but respect other people's beliefs.) If you read the article carefully, they did talk to the men after the prayer service. Did these men speak English? Did the FA's do all they could to find out what they had done? It doesn't seem so.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:33 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.