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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. Todd H.

    The 3 gentalmen that were praying should have just explained what it was they were doing when asked. the fact that they did not proves they were idiots and insensative to the other people around them. Don't rock the plane

    March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • omi

      Spelling help is needed here

      March 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  2. ijreilly

    Disturbing. If I were in charge of that airline, I would ban all three of these gentlemen from riding again. People cannot and should not be allowed to start chanting and disturbing other passengers, in a way that alarms others, because of their religious practices. Just as we can't have Muslims whipping out mats, ignoring flight attendants, and strapping on boxes to their arms during a flight, neither can these gentlemen. No one groups right is above any others. Now, if your prayer at this particular point in time was SO important that they would knowingly alarm other passengers and staff, without so much as an explanation, then why in the hell were flying on a plane? Pick a flight in the middle of the night that doesn't conflict with prayer time. I know what comes next, anytime you disagree with a Jewish person then your automatically anti-semetic. Sorry, but you have worn that card out. I would be saying the exact same thing if it were any other religion or belief. What they did was wrong and should apologize.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  3. Lent well Spent

    Steve is so incredibly stupid.

    -that said, it would have been wise for these kind folks to announce their intentions ahead of time.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  4. Gary

    So they open up bins during turbulence which seems to me a hazardous thing to do,possibly causing harm to fellow passengers. Perhaps they need to study scripture a bit more: "Love your neighbor as yourself." I am a Christian and I would obey the instructions of the flight crew even if I desired to get my Bible out of the overhead. I would wait until it was safe to do so to avoid harm to myself or my fellow passengers. God gave us all a brain regardless of ones faith, let's use it.

    Also, congregating in the aisleway is not allowed. At least it wasn't on a recent flight I was on.

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

      I think that regardless of religion they shouldn't open bins. There are non-christians who don't open the bins. There are jews who don't open the bins. Opening the bins was stupid independent of their religion, your being Christian has nothing to do with it.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  5. Smart One

    They should just blindly allow everyone onto the airplane with black boxes that have wires coming out of it. This is totally normal and any question about such device should be taken as a discrimination based on religion...

    March 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Tom

      That is so weird. Just today I was walking into work with a black box with wires and security stopped me. Who knew?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  6. lana jones

    tell me about it! this was on an airplane? some people dont learn

    March 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  7. North

    It's alright for the JEWS but GODFORBID if it were Muslims they would be detained & labeled "terrorists" immediately & sent to be waterboarded without trial...

    See the double-standard here?

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

      Probably because if they were muslim they would have been terrorists.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • omi

      You really believe that if there was a person who was Muslim praying peacefully on a plane they would be waterboarded? That's pretty stupid. Alot of injustice happens here but they're not going to arrest someone for praying. It would ignite a bit debate (like here) but they wouldn't haul them off.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  8. Scimajor

    " 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"

    If you want to fly you have to follow the rules. The crew made the correct decisions.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  9. wow

    They definitely were trying to see what would happen from doing that on a plane...I'm an american arab muslim and I'm afraid of flying so I say a little prayer at take off and landing but I whisper it not speak loud enough to frighten anyone. Thats not smart at all I'm a 21 year old woman I bet if I just prayed at an audible level id be beaten senseless...airports are horrible places for any type of physical prayer...i mean I go to the airport and you wouldn't know I'm muslim til you saw my name I look like any other american 21 year old I even have a biracial nonmuslim son but I get strip searched, have my suitcases searched through and I'm not aloud to bring a carryon aboard a plane not exactly fair and I've never received an apology. Being jewish shouldn't give u a free pass to do whatever u want on a plane.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  10. JDawg1

    I used to work at the Albany airport in upstate New York and one time we got a "heads up" that a female "Monk" (shaved head and everything) was coming through and she had some special needs: no man could touch her, serve her food, talk or even look at her. It was crazy considering some of the demands that passengers have, but at least she notified us in advance, unlike these three whackos who obviously were looking for a little attention.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  11. Arlee

    Remember that they also had to go though the security with their bags like everyone else and if you think the airport is doing a good job with your security, no sweat. If you think the security at airports is a joke, you worry. Security aside, why are two men going to the bathroom at the same time, what's with that?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Julie Labrouste

    There aren't many industries that manage to hack people off more than the airlines...do they all have something like a, "Department of Hacking People Off at Every Conceivable Moment in All Ways Imaginable"?

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

      What does "hacking off mean" or were you doing that when you posted your message?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Julie Labrouste

      "hack off"

      English
      Verb

      hack off (third-person singular simple present pads down, present participle padding down, simple past and past participle padded down)

      1. (transitive) To remove by hacking; cut off  [quotations ▼]
      * 1897, Arthur Conan Doyle, The Dealings of Captain Sharkey with Stephen Craddock

      2. (transitive) To annoy

      http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/hack_off

      March 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  13. Bucktooth

    I totally would have reacted the same! The terrorists on 9/11 wrapped red headbands around their heads just before they took over the United flight..can't be too careful! I'm surprised that passengers didn't tackle them! We really aren't familiar w/other rituals/religions.

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

      you'd have reacted the same? i certainly hope if you were my pilot and this happened that you would turn the plane around and go back to mexico city, since this started shortly after take off, if this was such a security issue why continue the rest of the 4 hour flight?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  14. Realist

    Why are they apologizing? Ridiculous.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  15. joe

    To each his own.....and to his own be happy......don't force who you are or what you believe on others....be happy with what you do as a person and whats right...for those who believe in god (as I) ) let god judge not man....and for those who don't believe be happy and rightouse and enjoy....so in tern don't do that on a plane as human beings we can feel whats appropriate and whats not, no ones out to get you but just trying to protect everyone as a whole. Find peace and dive in!

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

    Disobeying flight attendants is inexcusable. Not explaining quickly and fully is unacceptable. It's an airplane not a place of worship.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Amused

      I agree! It makes me wonder if the orthodox jews were intentionally trying to get a rise out of the airline crew in an attempt to make some kind of political point or raise some sort of issue? You have to wonder why they would blatantly ignore the questions and directions of the flight attendants... Hmm ...

      March 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  17. Steve

    Religion is so incredibly stupid.

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

      Amen! 🙂

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

      No it's not, what's stupid is people use use religion as an excuse for intolerance. There is nothing inherently wrong in the idea of religion.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Proud To Walk in Faith

      You will see ONE DAY just how stupid NOT having Faith in G-d is.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  18. fradzz

    Why don't the stupid MFer's pray before the flight like everyone else?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Common Sense

      EXACTLY!!! They're lucky the rest of the passengers didn't jump them!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • david

      because prayers must be recited at a specific time and that time happened to be during the flight

      March 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  19. Lisa

    In the years since 9/11 it is ridiculous that people of faith will continue to pray or follow their own rituals on a plane. Haven't they been paying attention for the past 10 years?? This is not a freedom of religion instance nor is it the time to stress that all airlines educate their staff. God will forgive you if you wait until the plane lands to pray. Everyone on board and all people on land beneath the plane need to be protected. These 3 men showed incredible insensitivity to their fellow fliers.

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

      They do this on purpose. I can guarantee there will now be a lawsuit for discrimination and as long as airliners apologize for this kind of "terrorism" it will continue. I can guarantee if I was saying the Rosary and was met by the FBI there would have been no apology and I would have probably been arrested.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • omi

      So you're saying that freedom to pray outwardly ends at the airport gate? Catholics shouldn't cross themselves either? I didn't realize that riding on a plan was supposed to be a repressive experience. The men did nothing wrong in their actions as long as they were not being unreasonably noisy. The fact that other people jumped to conclusions is not their fault, I'm sure they would have gladly explained what everything was and what they were doing, but obviously there was some sort of breakdown in communication or it never would've been such a big deal

      March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Ruth

      I am sure they were amused at the stir they caused. Should have put parchutes on them and boot them from the
      plane. They knew that it would cause chaos.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Tom

      No Omi, you are correct. Everyone can pray as loud as they want and ALL the other passengers who know what happened in the past can live in fear until they land. As long as 3 people are happy who cares about the 100+ other people on the plane.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  20. Damien

    something doesn't make sense in this story, they started praying shortly after take-off, and it scared the crew enough they alerted pilots, obviously they were concerned about terrorists or a hijacking or bombing, ye they continued all the way to LA???????????????????

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

      considering the source, we probably don't have the entire story

      March 15, 2011 at 5:36 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.