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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. Frank

    If you are going to run an article about Alaska Airlines then please don't post a picture of a Southwest plane. Do your job and go the extra mile and get it right.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  2. ARCHIE

    Tefilin dont look like wires, google it and see for yourselves. they didnt need to chant aloud and shouldnt have. quite frankly some of the details seem embellished. that said they should have listened to instructions and explained their actions.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  3. Jan

    These guys knew better. What an ignorant way to act on an airplane in today's society. They are NOT owed an apology and should be monitored on future flights.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  4. Faith

    I wonder if any of these airline employees ever go through the proper training!! Americans have lost our cultural awareness. I'm not Jewish, but I know that Orthodox Jews have always prayed this way in America. People who live in cities where there are larger populations of Orthodox Jewish people wouldn't think twice if they saw someone doing this. But just because we are not exposed to different cultures doesn't mean we need to be fearful of them. I am really surprised that flight attendants and crew members are not more educated about what is normal behavior within the many different cultures and ethnic groups that travel their airlines every day.

    I am bothered by the responses that are quick to admonish these people and wish to suppress the religious freedom.

    In the very least, the flight attendants over-reacted! Use some common sense and get out of your small-mindedness. These people are green and need to get some education.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Jeff

      Say what you will, but there is nothing "normal" about their behavior.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Shawn Stewart

      Flight attendants have much more important training to deal with and focus on than cultural differences. Unless you are suggesting that they only be educated in the Orthodox Jewish culture. There are so many cultural differences in the world today, you cannot expect airline attendants to keep informed regarding everyone person on this earths, religious practices or beliefs. I myself want them focused on exactly what they did focus on....passengers acting strange, not doing what they are asked to do, and any other threats that may present themselves in flight. Their number one priority is the safety of the passengers and plane, not practicing religious tolerance.

      March 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  5. jimmy

    The apprehension of the crew and passengers is understandable. The ignorance is expected because there are relatively few Orthodox Jews.

    BUT... did anyone think to ask these people what they were doing, instead of just judging them based purely on behavior?

    For those people that equate Jews and Muslims and their religious practices, remember, Muslims are trying to kill us, Jews aren't.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Lb

      Speaking of ignorant.. Did you even READ the article?? They said they asked them repeatedly! I'm not Muslim or Jewish but I do know that the Muslim community is not trying to kill us. It is a radical group of Terrorists! I expect ANYONE acting all weird and secretive on a flight to get detained and questioned and I don't care who it is or what they are doing! If I stood up in the middle of a flight and started loudly reciting the hail Mary ignoring flight attendants and being all weird, I would expect to have security waiting for me strictly based on my behavior.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  6. Jonny Mack

    This is a simple question of appropriate behavior and good manners. In this day and age is it possible for anyone not to realize that people of differing faiths are sitting around them? Or that a heavy duty prayer session in a foreign tongue on an airliner bound for a major U.S. city might raise a red flag? It seems to me the onus is on the orthodox jews who know they are about to engage in a ritual in front of strangers to explain quickly what they are about to do to those around them. It would be more polite to allay the fears of the ignorant and to offer a little education as well. Then people would be more comfortable around them and no one would call in the cavalry...

    March 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  7. victim of democrat hypocrisy

    The airline and flight crew shouldn't need to apologize for being vigilant–they should be commended.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  8. Tadd

    An airplane is no place for group religious rituals, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Pagan! Strapping wires and boxes to oneself mid flight is completely inappropriate and inconsiderate to passengers and crew. If your religion requires rituals at a certain time BOOK ANOTHER FLIGHT! There are usually prayers spaces in airports, but while in the airplane everyone should remain seated whenever possible and be considerate of other passengers. Group activities are prohibited! Or maybe we should jump double dutch in the aisle? I would have been freaked out were I on this plane and not due to my "religious intolerance". I am glad these fools were questioned and inconvenienced! I hope they use half a thought before treating an airplane as a synogogue!

    March 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  9. nathan

    Absolutely no reason for the airline to apologize

    March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  10. average guy

    This is stupid. Who gets on a plane and starts praying and acting all weird. These guys are either idiots or they knew they'd draw attention and wanted the attention. I don't think the flight crew needs to be tolerant, error on the side of caution. The apology should be these idiots who probably scared the tar out of the rest of the passengers and no doubt caused them all to be delayed. PC run amuk that THEY would be the ones getting apologized to. Idiots.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  11. Vaishwords

    These passengers should have been fined and made to apologize to the airline for repeatedly disobeying the airline crew requests to sit down and for flouting federal air safety regulations…

    March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  12. Bob Hope

    Apologize !!! for what... They were wrong, had it been someone else they would have been arrested for not following the LAW. Its a shame that people can get away with this specially of their JEWISH faith.......

    March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  13. terrix2000

    And great, we just gave terrorists another way to plot and scheme, let's pretend we are Orthodox Jews and blow up the plane. Great, just great. Wonderful, fantistic. Good job Orthodox Jewish stupid men.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  14. Lanfear

    Personally I just find the whole thing hilarious!!!! I have nothing else to say on this matter.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  15. terrix2000

    I praise the attendants to the highest degree!!!! Thank you for keeping those who fly safe. If the Orthodox Jews want to seem to be secretive, avoid rules and do what they please, and knowing full well what they are doing, and knowing full well a majority of people, especially those on the plane have no clue what they are doing. They should be ashamed of themselves!!! They were only thinking of themselves and not those around them, not very Jewish of them, is it?

    March 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  16. Matt

    I'm Jewish. And what these guys did was moronic at best, and intentionally antagonistic at worst. No religious activity immunizes you from requiring some common sense, which these people failed miserably at.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • TinKnight

      Ding Ding DIng! We have a winner!
      Seriously, it doesn't matter if you're Amish and are flying for the first time as an act of rebellion but are terrified of the big scary metal monster, or if you're a businessman who flies 3 times a day...you answer the flight attendants when they ask you what it is that is on your arm with wires running from it...if it's a religious artifact, simply explain its purpose to put everyone's minds at ease.
      This is just a case of being inconsiderate and rude, and people have been arrested for lesser actions.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Boston

      I am Jewish as well and think that what these passengers did was just plain stupid. There are plenty of other places they could have donned their tafilin (the small back boxes that contain bible passages that are bound on the head and arm with leather straps). I don't know if they were trying to prove something, but certainly the Jewish religion did not require this act on the plane. The insensitivity did not come from the airline; it came from the passengers.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • mudmandon

      No kidding! Guess this plane had no air Marshall on it? They should have been pistol whipped back into their seats and why can't they do their praying in the terminal? Arrogant idiots that are trying to impose their religious rituals on other passengers just because they can. And those little black boxes might not be so scary if they were made from clear plastic and a person could see inside of them...and don't forget...the rest of ya'll on the plane is just Goyim. You have no business questioning anything these Orthodox Jews are doing!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  17. bill

    Why do my comments always get buried in the middle instead of being chronologically relevant to comments already made?

    March 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • vor

      I don't know Bill...why?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  18. Steve

    I don't think Air Alaska owes them an apology. They should have known better and have conducted their ritual in a more appropriate place instead of on a plane that has just taken off and at a time when passangers are required to be in their seats with their seatbelts on. As a corrollary to this I will try and refrain from conducting Beltane rituals on airplanes.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Jeff

      I don't understand why they had to perform this ritual on the flight at all. I am certainly no expert in Orthodox Judaism, but it seems inappropriate in that setting and at that time. As an atheist, on the other hand, I don't know why anyone has to sit there and be subjected to religious rituals in a public venue at all. I don't care what you do, just do it in an appropriate place.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  19. prachi

    I am wondering about the double standards here. I am not a muslim but just was wondering if the three people in the above situation were muslims. My god they would have been branded as terrorists and would have been put through more scrutiny than anyone could imagine. I don't think the airline would have apologize and would have insisted it followed proper procedure. In this case, they are reaching out to the religious organisation of the religion and so on. Don't get me wrong, i don't care if they apologize or not. But the policy should be consistent, if they apologize here, they should do it in every case where religious bias and lack of understanding of a given religion or religious practice played a part. I want equality rather than just catering to few religions while ignoring the others as they don't exist.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • seriously

      You said it better than I did! I agree with you 100%!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • NA

      Agree 100%

      March 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  20. seriously

    I wonder if they would have given an apology if Muslims were praying in the same manner! I bet you they wouldn't have! Now thats just not fair!

    March 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Doug

      Funny, but as I recall it was a bunch of Muslims on a plane the blew up the WTC.

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

      Don't be witless. Of course it would have happened to Muslims. There have been numerous incidents where Muslims have been pulled off of planes or investigated for behavior much more innocuous than this.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • seriously

      Steve – my question was – would they have issued an apology if they were Muslims who would have done the exact same thing. And I believe they wouldn't have! Thats all I am saying....

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

      Doug, funny but as I recall it was a lone white man that blew up the government building in Oklahoma City LONG before 9/11.
      Maybe all white men that travel alone should be closely monitored for anti-governmental leanings...oh, wait! I'm a white male that frequently travels alone! Nevermind then...

      March 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Jonny Mack

      Honestly, how many Americans know the difference between orthodox jews and muslims? They and their faiths originate from the same place. Their language is born of the same Aramaic root language and they are both semites. Of course, average American pseudo-Christians sitting around them would be alarmed by any devout show of faith shortly after takeoff. The most appropriate thing to have done would have been to explain quickly to those around them what they were about to do. Then nobody would have freaked out. The airline should not have to apologize. Though a flight attendant might have asked one of the participants what they were doing before calling in the FBI.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • mudmandon

      @ TINNIGHT...if you believe that one man working alone did that damage to that building with a fertilizer bomb then you probably for sure believe in Santa Claus.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:21 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.