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. bill

    I bet those on Flight 261 were out of their seat seats and praying too. Maybe we really shot the plane down.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  2. Andy

    How is God not the author of confusion when he only wrote one book and yet there are literally 100 different divisions of people arguing about what it says? Sounds like confusion is his specialty.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  3. The Big Picture

    Most, not all, people have respect for other cultures and religions. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible and unnecessary to become educated on every single religion and ritual. However, it appears that these men displayed no respect towards anyone on that flight. I am terrified of flying and I assure you that I would have had a panic attack had I seen their behavior.

    Furthermore, the entire process of flying is infused with the idea that someone is probably trying to get on the planes with bombs/guns/knives/etc. With all of the security and precautions, people are already scared to fly. Being nervous when they saw strange behavior (yes, it is strange behavior to some) is completely normal in today's process of flying commercial.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  4. Jake

    I wonder if the authorities and the airlines offered the apology if the incident happened involving Muslim instead of Jewish men.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  5. Carol Roberts

    No praying on airplanes! Unless they're about to crash.
    Of course this would frighten people! Surprised nobody stood up and duct taped them.
    time and place and get over it.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  6. Susan L

    I think it's absolutely ludicrous in 2011 that no one on that flight recognized these men were Orthodox Jews, even another passenger. No one in this nation is THAT isolated or should be that uneducated. It seems to me people are starting to run on paranoia and relying more and more on paranoia to fuel themselves. We're a multicultural natural who should at the very least have enough respect for others to recognize their differences.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • dnev

      This issue has little to do with their choice of faith but moreso the lack of respect for their fellow flyers along with a total disrepect of the of the crew just trying to do their jobs . When you think of it, this is akin to smoking in a public area. Why should I have to inhale second hand smoke just trying to eat my dinner as a non-smoker?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • dvclipper314

      I am educated and I can recognize an Orthodox Jew, and I fly a lot. But, seriously, disregarding in-flight instructions and taping black boxes to themselves is out of line. They could have arranged to hold their ceremony BEFORE or AFTER the flight. I probably would have had a serious issue with them if I were sitting anywhere close. This is ridiculous.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Anon917

      So u know about every religion in the world? Btw the offense was not their religion but the lack of tolerance and understanding that the 3 men showed everyone else on the plane. And why should they have been exempt from the rules of the plane? Bc they r Jewish? Do they have special rights?

      March 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  7. ABC

    Because they were Orthodox Jewish that why airline apologize if they were muslim then u will hear different story and no apology at all.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  8. booboobear

    Great, they just give terrorists a way to get bombs in flights. They'll just say it's the box thingy for prayers...sheesh. Just think the prayers.... and God will hear ya. Or wait till you get home. Right, God? "Right".

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

    Heck, they should have be Tasered. They'd been instructed to sit down and they refused to obey repeated instructions. Sorry but being a religious nut doesn't give one a right to disregard safety instructions. And besides, what if they had been terrorists pretending to be religious nuts?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  10. Hawktchr

    No one in this day and age should be doing that on an airplane. Sounds to me like they want a reason to sue.

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

    These 3 yom kippers should get their teeth knocked out once the plan landed.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  12. Manny

    Would Alaska Airlines then deny a Santero the ability to practice his religious freedom mid-flight?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  13. dnev

    '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.'

    This is totally unacceptable.... they really need to apologise to the airlines, crew and paying patrons who wish to fly unfettered, especially in times of such global distress... I got the chills just reading this passage..., am i alone on this?

    March 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • The Big Picture


      March 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Carol Roberts

      you are 100% correct.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  14. Ben S.

    I'm sorry but Alaska Airlines OWES THEM NO APOLOGY. I would have been freaking out and I fly all the time. This is ridiculous. Those men clearly violated the rules by standing when the seatbelt sign was on and all going to the bathroom together (presumed to be what the 9/11 hijackers did when the shaved their bodies before killing hundreds of people). We need to be more tolerant? It goes both ways and I don't give a flip flying crap what religion you are, when you are pulling mysterious black boxes out of luggage during a flight, you better be prepared to explain yourself.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • 2manyhorses

      I'm with you!!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  15. Hugh Rockford

    –Muslim children are wonderful but–
    we in the west would be violent too if we were inculcated with all the mandates to violence toward critics, unbelievers, atheists, polytheists and women found in the Q'uran.

    Because Islam is involved in 31 of todays 33 wars and incites terror and violence all over the world, Everyone should take 5 minutes and AND READ Q'uran Chapters 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 47.

    Once you read the Hadith, Sunnah and Q'uran, you will understand why a US Army Psychiatrist, a very mild and educated man, picks up a rifle one day and guns down his fellow unarmed soldiers enjoying R&R on his own home base.

    That's why we must BAN THE Q'uran, to avert more from acting on Mohammad's violent command to kill non-Muslims in Allah's name at every opportunity.

    BanIslamNow . com - IslamisIllegal . com - IslamisUnlawful . com

    P.S. – I know the liberals will not allow my posts through but guess what moderator – you just jacked into the truth 🙂

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

      Go read your precious bible and tell me it's not violent!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Tony

      Hey, what do you know? Your "truth" got through! Now the whole world can see how stupid you are. Well done!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • veggiedude

      Another conservative that hates his liberal jesus. LOL

      March 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Zack Dunn

      By the same logic you're providing, Christianity should be banned as well (if a women is found to not be a virgin on her wedding night, she shall be put to death, etc.). I'm guessing from your blatant opposition of liberals that you are a Tea Partier? You realize that your party's basic stand is for the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights? Which guarantees freedom of religion? Of which Islam is in fact a religion? Islam and Christianity these days do not follow the fundamentalist rules provided in their holy books, they have adapted to modern culture, which makes them perfectly safe for any sane person to practice. Claiming that all of Islam together should be banned from the actions of a select few individuals is like saying Christianity should be banned because of the Crusades and their own terrorist attacks here in the United States.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  16. Bigbrotheriswatching

    Airlines should shackle, blindfold and gag all passengers during all flights then there will be no more threats to anyone and the world will be a much safer place to travel in.

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

    Obviously, these guys were not members of the Conservative branch of Judaism:----

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  18. rjm

    Of all people, Orthodox Jews should know about the importance of following rules...

    March 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  19. Idgaf

    I don't care who you are, or what religion you are ignorant enough to practice....if you get out of your seats on an airplane, and cause a ruckus such as this, then you deserve nothing more than to be tackled to the floor by the U.S. Marshalls on board, restrained, and then incarcerated upon landing. No religion gives you the right to cause any kind of disruption in an environment such as this. Let's get real here.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Ben S.


      March 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Manny

      Amen brother!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  20. Hugh Rockford

    –Here is a sample of what impressionable Muslims children are taught–
    from cradle to grave:

    Bukhari:V1B1N6 "Just issue orders to kill every Jew in the country."

    Tabari: VIII:181 Muhammad ordered six men and four girls guilty of criticism to be assassinated

    VIII 40: Mohammad ordered trenches dug to catch the blood, sat down & began cutting off the heads of the unarmed Jewish villagers of Qurayza.

    Koran chapters 9 & 47: Behead and make slaves of infidels for it's better to kill in Allah's cause then to live on earth.


    March 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • timh

      & I guess all Jewish children are taught, cradle to grave, that's it's OK to steal other people's farms, shoot their kids, while being guarded by the IDF? Personally, I don't believe that but its certainly as believable as your racist garbage

      March 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • er

      Ok, so go read the bible and then copy and paste all the violent instructions in there, too!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • veggiedude

      There are similar stupid stuff in the bible too and its easy to take it out of context. Prayer should not be in public. End of story.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:05 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.