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. john

    hey we found the line between freedom of religion and stupidity!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  2. Drew

    This stuff is getting ridiculous. We are so concerned about making sure no one gets offended that we miss the bigger picture. Should we outright ban religious practices? No, but I think it is acceptable to point out that there are proper situations when religious behavior and practices are not acceptable. Obeying the guidelines set forth by the airlines for passenger safety is one of those times. However, lets not blow this out of proportion. These three individuals made some bad judgement calls on this one, but I think it hardly calls for an excessive reaction from the rest f us. The crew did what it thought was in the best interests of passenger safety, they did not over react. We get all worked up over silly things simply because we can. Lets step back from all the excessive finger pointing and just relax. People make mistakes because we are imperfect creatures.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  3. Amy

    Are you kidding me? Flight attendants have enough on their plates than to know every single ritual that someone might practice at any given time. Why doesn't the ADL send information out to Orthodox Jews about how not to behave on a plane! What was so urgent that they couldn't do their prayers before or after the flight? Just sit down, buckle up, and shut the eff up!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • vor

      Just what I wanted to say.....and I would have kicked their ignorant ass*s off the flight, too. Have a nice day.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  4. A Name Realy People Please

    To all the relegions – there is no stupid "god" we came from either bacteria or extrateresterials. If there was a god from any of the relegions we are definately over due for a kick in the balls from the O Mighty POS.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  5. Oakland Richard

    This is the fault of the these three uncooperative passengers (and I'm jewish). No one would have had a problem if they had answered the flight attendant's questions clearly and directly. And even if they had been cooperative, praying loudly is no different than talking loudly – it disturbs everyone else.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  6. keller

    Jews are dip$#!s too...ignorance knows no religion, creed or beard level.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  7. Eddie

    A very calculated move by Alaska Airlines, and by CNN. The article attempts to justify the airline's behavior, under the guise of a public apology. "We are very sorry, BUT..." They then proceed to give their reasons for the paranoia, the language rife with terrorist connotations: black boxes strapped to their chests and foreheads with black tape and wires, men standing guard outside the lavatory. Very nice, Alaska Airlines. Turn this unfortunate incident into a marketing campaign, targeting all the ignorant, paranoid and racist folk in this country. Make that money!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  8. Alana J

    Publicity stunt – nothing else. These guys had to know what their prayer rituals would look like to people with little or no knowledge of their religion.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • sim

      You're wrong.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  9. Tristan

    Yey! Peter! You ate a pumkin!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  10. JanetMermaid

    If these jerkwads didn't think something that looks like this would scare other passengers then they are total morons: http [colon slash slash] www [dot] drlaz.com [slash] images [slash] Howie-Tefillin. [dot] jpg (Can't post a direct link...)

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

      So what does that make you–a partial moron perhaps? I'm good with that (X2)

      March 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  11. Fiona

    It's almost funny that people can be so ignorant of the religious practices of others. How could anyone not recognize Orthodox Jews, and not know what the box, the straps, the bowing all mean? How could you not recognize Hebrew when you hear it? You'd have to be surprisingly uneducated and intentionally isolated from the rest of the word, never watch the news or read. The flight attendants couldn't ask someone to fill them in? But forget the religious aspect of this. It comes down to consideration and cooperation - or lack of it. These men disregarded the instructions of the flight crew. They disrupted passengers. They acted selfishly, and illegally. They should be charged, and the focus should not be on educating the Orthodox community on airline rules, but on CONSIDERATION of others.

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

      I'm sorry but not everybody knows about other religions. quit being so ignorant.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • x

      Judaism only accounts for 0.2% of the world population and not all are Orthodox.
      Are you still shocked that some haven't been exposed to them?
      If so then how can you be so ignorant of other demographic regions in the world. Try not to be so "uneducated and intentionally isolated from the rest of the [world]"

      March 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • aatami

      Yeah! Heather is right! It's her right and the right of all americans to remain as stupid and uneducated as possible. If it ain't on American Idol, Heather and her type don't wanna know about it! Let"s hear it for the know nothing party and alll the tea partiers who have bought the idea of ignorance as a badge of honor, hook, line, and sinker! Yahoooo! God love a dimwitted American.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  12. b4bigbang

    hey, anybody here know why they had to do it then and there? I mean, is it part of their religious obligation? Seems kinda impractical to me.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  13. Patropolis

    I'm surprised they didn't have an air marshal on board especially on an international flight from Mexico City. Of course these three men would have been body slammed like a French Bruce Lee and would have been a much more interesting story on CNN.

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

      "body slammed like a French Bruce Lee"
      Never heard that one before

      March 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  14. Michael B.

    I think the FBI questioning the men may be a little extreme, but better safe than sorry. We wouldn't want people with bad intentions impersonating Orthodox Jews. I've heard of suicide bombers impersonating Orthodox Jews in Israel. Let's calm down. This was a Mexico City–LA flight. We cannot assume that the passengers or flight crew were familiar with Orthodox prayer rituals. Not everyone is going to be familiar with the rituals. I have read about them and seen them on tv, but have never personally witnessed them. Even though I have seen them on tv and read about Orthodox rituals and probably wouldn't be afraid, I might find it a little annoying if I had to sit next to them, but no more so than if I had to listen to any other passenger talking loudly, talking about their relationship, etc. Planes are cramped places, People are more jittery on planes these days, Plane travel is a lot more frustrating and inconvenient.

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

      Michael B. – Good job Michael! Well done! You've proven that the "terrorists" have won. You are afraid of your own shadow. Dimwit! Do us all a favor and just stay home.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  15. JanetMermaid

    If these jerkwads didn't think something that looks like this would scare people then they are total and complete morons: http://www.drlaz.com/images/Howie-Tefillin.jpg

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

      Wow Janet. You must live your life in a friggin box. Why would that scare you? Are some some sort of intellectual pea brain, a delicate flower who's petals drop at the site of something you don't understand? No wonder this country is dropping straight down the toilet. IT's populated by genetic disasters like Janet here, did your mommy call your daddy cousin?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  16. Nuggehalli

    I wonder if the crew will be trained in all forms of Prayers, Muslim, Christian & Hindu included, or they are just just being educated on Jewish prayers. Gets weirder by the day.

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

      Sure is, I think the problem is ignorant fear. "We fear what we don't understand, hyuck hyuck." I think that's the mating call of the republican voter.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  17. YBP

    Why aren't the culprits apologizing for acting fooloish and scaring everyone?

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

      Why are you breathing our air?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  18. JoePelican

    We have to remember the idiots making these rules and protesting something as simple as a PRAYER for God's sake, have no spiritual values and are probably the same ones that want the name "God" removed from the Pledge of Alliegence. People would have freaked about it BEFORE 9/11 also, so stop freaking out about it. Freedom of Religion. "Airline apologizes for plane prayer scare" when they ought to be apologizing to the people they humiliated. Simply amazing.

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


      March 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • SFMarko

      I think your comment is shallow and misguided. To suggest that the people in the TSA and the airlines who make these rules have no spiritual values is just an empty statement with no merit whatsoever. Pray all you want, but I prefer that when I'm flying that the crew is perceptive of anything out of order. Also, the airline did apologize to the people and what they went through specifically, but it appears comprehension isn't your strong suit.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • aatami

      JoePelican – Wow. You couldn't be more incorrect. The people who are blowing it in a major way are dimwitted americans who pray to their god jesus priced and have no real knowledge of any other spiritual practice, their spirituality is fed to them by carnival hucksters and pedophiles in funny hats. Most importantly, they have no tolerance for any other religious or spiritual belief systems. I find religion to be idiotic and infantile but hey, if you want to live your life in guilt and shame and ignorance based on iron age fairy tales, that's your right. Not just christians but all the intellectual midgets including muslims, jews, etc.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  19. Lent well Spent

    Yay Texas Jewboy! Aim low...they're riding Shetland ponies!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  20. taylor jones

    There is a time and place for everything they are just pushing there rights a bit to far we are under attack right now. I've flown with my job and never seen anything like this. Iam surprised nobody apparented them during this act

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


      March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Eddie


      March 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • sim

      Yes, and this was the time and place. Baptist?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • aatami

      Wow! You are an idiot taylor jones. As are the dimwits who, a) don't know the difference between a muslim and a jew, and b) find religious prayer threatening. It's amazing to me that in this time we have such a high percentage stupid and arrogant people as exhibited by this taylor jones dimwit. Incredible.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:55 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.