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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. Donalyn

    I absolutely despair at the cultural ignorance of the American public. For crying out loud, they were Orthodox Jews, praying in Hebrew, wearing tefellin. This is neither radical nor uncommon. Before we were ordered to stop providing education (as opposed to indoctrinization), any schoolchild could have identified this culture. The United States has a very rich Jewish heritage, of which the Orthodox have been a viable, visible part for as long as I have been alive (I am now 53 years old). And by the way – perhaps some of you have heard of Jesus Christ? You perhaps think he was the founder of Christianity? If he were alive today I think he would be ashamed of this.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Shawn Stewart

      I disagree with the statement that this is hardly uncommon. Maybe your generation was brought up well, with education regarding this religion and it's practices. We weren't all so lucky and this is the first I have ever heard about what you refer to as tefellin. I do plan on studying up now, to keep myself informed for the future.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  2. Name*ranger75

    Frankly I believe the airport had every reason to do what they did. It seems to me that they (three individuals) knew exactly what they were doing in causing such a scene.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Shawn Stewart

      I was thinking the same thing, and am now wondering if a lawsuit will be filed against the airline for discrimination or for the "pain and suffering" and "trauma" caused by being met and questioned by the FBI.

      I would hope not, but this is a very litigious society we live in!

      March 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  3. Disappointed

    I am disappointed that the passengers didn't roll them old testament style.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  4. Veritas

    Amazing what ridiculous religious dogma and rituals there are; laughable really...

    March 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  5. Linda

    keep the rituals at home, or do them before/after u fly, pray in silence, there are places to worship, a plane is not one of them.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  6. TDIdriver

    Fear and ignorance always lead to over-reaction by the stupid and afraid.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  7. Progressive-atheist

    I'm all for equal rights and allowing people freedom. I'm also don't appreciate creating false fear like FOX news does. However, regardless of religion...if they were 100% atheist...with no religion or particular ethnic background & they got up while they were not supposed to and retrieved unfamiliarity shaped items out of their luggage...they deserved to be kicked off the flight with no apology what-so-ever. Those passengers should pay for everyone else's inconvenience.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • MajorPayne

      Probably one of the fairest comments on this thread.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Shawn Stewart

      Well said! I concur.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  8. I'm sorry butt

    I can't beleive some of the ignorant statements made by some people... let common sense prevail please. I am an apostlic christian and I speak in tongues but I wouildn't get on board an aircraft and do it (unless of course I was lead too). But I recognize that it would be unresonable and make people nervious. We should keep our religious practices between us and the Lord and be aware and considerate of those around us. I beleive the Jewish people are Gods people (but poeple are people and nobody (but Christ) is perfect).

    March 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  9. MIke Mazzla

    A public airplane is not the place to do some loud religious ritual.. no matter what it is. The fact that they also stood up when they werent supposed to and boxes and wire looking things attached to them is ludicrous. I dont think the airline needs to apologize at all and I applaud what they did. If a Muslim guy threw down his prayer matt the response would be the same and justifiably so.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Robert Walton

      Mike, While I would have thought the the prayer rug caper was as much a breach of good manners as the the guys with the with the phylacteries chanting in Hebrew, I think most folks would have associated the rug with Muslim prayer. On the other hand, very few, other than orthodox or conservative Jews, have ever seen a phylactery being wound around an arm or placed between the eyes. (see Deuteronomy 6:8) While I think the Muslim would have gotten some nasty stares, I'm surprised no one jumped these guys. .

      March 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Robert Walton

      Mike, While I would have thought the the prayer rug caper was as much a breach of good manners as the guys with the with the phylacteries chanting in Hebrew, I think most folks would have associated the rug with Muslim prayer. On the other hand, very few, other than orthodox or conservative Jews, have ever seen a phylactery being wound around an arm or placed between the eyes. (see Deuteronomy 6:8) While I think the Muslim would have gotten some nasty stares, I'm surprised no one jumped these guys. .

      March 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  10. Shawn Stewart

    Is there a reason why they did this on the flight rather than before or after?? I am not familiar with this religions practices and just curious. (maybe the prayer is required at certain times in the day and it was that time?)

    "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."

    This would have totally freaked me out and I might have accidentally tackled someone had I been on this flight. I don't think the flight crew did anything wrong, nor do I think the Airline needed to apologize. I am sensitive to all Religions (but I am an Atheist) but when something as uncommon as this is going to happen, the airline and crew should have been alerted prior to the prayer.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Certain faiths have prescribed times to pray. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are the most well known, save with Alaska Airlines.
      As such, they believe that they'll not go to heaven if they fail to pray at the prescribed times.

      Now, a PROPER response from the flight attendant would have been to ask "What are/were you doing? Some passengers were uneasy and concerned."
      Get an answer and follow up with: "Oh? Can you tell me more, that is interesting! I've never met someone of your faith before."
      Then, perhaps gently chide them to inform the crew next time, as may are unfamiliar with their faith and as such, in the current environment, it causes fear.
      THAT is called customer service 101.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  11. akex

    Funny, that Alaska airlines is apologizing, because I wonder their response had these individuals been muslims or some obscure hindu’s or buddhists. I am not a muslim and it makes me wonder about the double standards which by the way, in the google era is being recorded like never before with events such as these serving as a justifications for retaliation 50-100-200-2000 years from now, when the other party is more powerful. Sometimes we have to be careful about what we wish for.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  12. George

    I'm of an entirely different faith, but my prayers also involve small black boxes with wires and tape. For some reason, I am singled out and harrassed incessantly. I have no idea why.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Shawn Stewart

      Great point! Sorry you are experiencing discrimination against your religion. You too, should be able to board a plane with your taped up box and wires. I am sure these Jewish people would understand. Heck, since your religions are so similar, maybe you should take your prayers and praying equipment over to Israel where I am sure you can peacefully observe your religious freedoms!

      March 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  13. james253

    These guys need to join this century. When the flight attendant tells you to sit down - sit down. When wearing straps and looking around to see if anybody is watching you - and then you take offense? Forget it.

    Alaska Airlines doesn't owe them diddly. I don't care what religion they are - seems to me the guys on 9/11 said they were practicing their religion, too. Throw THEM off the plane - and give them some "sensitivity training".

    March 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  14. Gomer

    I think it's ridiculous they were participating in this ritual on a plane, PERIOD. Regardless of who they were, or what religion, it's just plain rude. You can't hop on a plane and start causing all kinds of commotion, no matter what you're doing. (Praying, eating, dancing, exercises, etc.)

    March 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  15. Mike S

    WHY IS THE AIRLINE APOLOGIZING !!!! THE AIRPLANE IS NOT THE PLACE TO BE CONDUCTING RELIGOUS PRACTICES ETC REGARDLESS OF THE RELIGION. Pray privately or with your seat mate by all means...other than that...sit yourself down..buckle your seatbelt...and keep your mouth and religious preferences etc to yourself. THIS COUNTRY/COMPANY IS OUT OF CONTROL CATERING TO ALL THESE RELIGIOUS GROUPS THAT THINK THEY HAVE SOME RIGHT TO BOTHER OTHERS WITH THEIR PRACTICES ETC.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Jeremy

      well put Mike.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      You're RIGHT! Now, stop forcing US to hear YOUR first amendment rights. I don't want to hear it!
      It cuts both ways, as you've now made aircraft a rights free zone. NO MORE RIGHTS ON AIRPLANES. NO MORE RIGHTS ON BUSES. NO MORE RIGHTS ON TRAINS. NO MORE RIGHTS ON THE STREET. NO MORE RIGHTS ANYWHERE!
      Martial law next, you craven POS?
      We USED to have RIGHTS. Oops, not any more!
      We have RIGHTS FREE ZONES THAT EXTEND TO 99% of the NATION!
      THIS IS WHAT I CAME HOME FROM THE WAR FOR?!?!
      Maybe I defended the wrong side!
      Because, a DIFFERENT Taliban WON INSIDE this once great nation!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  16. RDS

    STOP IT !!! PLEASE STOP IT NOW !!
    People...please, I am a Captain with 25+ years up front. STOP doing things like this on aircraft. Why must everyone have a cause on a plane ? Can we not just go where we are going and THEN honor your religious, and other beliefs ?

    STOP.....NOW!

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

      Do what? They should have explained to the flight attendant and have explained what they were doing....but to say people can't be religious just to make YOU feel better is just plain ridiculous. Why do your beliefs and feelings more important than another's?....Stop being ignorant and close-minded.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Canadian flyer

      Oh I agree with you so much! These men must of known that what they were doing would cause alarms to go off in people around them and the flight crew. They should if waited till they were on the ground. I agree with relious freedoms but common sense should prevail. And thank you for what you do

      March 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • RDS

      Here is why.......
      I am driving a craft that contains over 300 folks (in my case). Those folks trust me and my company to deliver them safely to their destination. The rights of the group trump the rights of the individual in this case.
      Bottom line is though....the flight crew is in command...and I am accountable at the end of the day for EVERYONE. I am accountable for a multi million dollar aircraft, folks with families, and a crew of 8-15 folks. No religion trumps that. So I say again......STOP ! (please)

      March 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • msksfl72

      He's anything BUT close minded! Pilot bears HUGE responsibility – we take flying as a matter of course, but the guy in the front needs to concentrate on one thing only: getting that plane and everybody on it to the destination safely (and on time). Morons like these three is one of the reasons that airfares are going up, every time cr@p like that happens – it's paperwork, training etc. Things ARE complicated as it is – religion IS a personal thing, therefore it needs to be practices in either dedicated or personal place/space. Airplane is hardly either.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • john

      I agree with the Pilot RDS. If you have to pray, no matter what background you are, do it before and after the flight. No while on board! I think the flight crew was 100% correct, and the pilot is right on.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Very well, captain. DO enlighten us as to which airline has abandoned the first amendment? I want to do a few things.
      One, that airline will become a non-approved vendor.
      Two, I'll speak with a few friends to ensure that airline is PNG in any nations that rather disagree with your take on religious freedom.
      Three, I'll also ensure my family does NOT fly on your airline, ever.
      Otherwise, shut up and drive.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • CEIL

      WELL SAID, CAPTAIN! WELL SAID.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  17. diego

    so many opinions and no body cares what you think. religions suck and so are all religious nuts

    March 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  18. mike

    Jew muslim who cares,doing anything but what the flight personal says is screwed up.when youre on a plane landing is the only concern, they shouldnt need to put up with religious fanatics to complicate flying.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  19. I'm sorry butt

    I don't care who they were that type of behaveior should not be permitted during flight or on any public transportation. I agree with the apology but it shousld have been along the lins of " I'm sorry but you can't do that here".

    March 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Das ist racht! Das furher has said NEIN! Do NOT allow das Jew to pray!
      For in truth, you wish to force atheism upon others.
      Here's a news flash, I have sufficient ordinance to ensure my religious freedom and those of my fellow citizens.
      You want my first amendment, my second amendment protects it.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Hal

      True. That's a judgement call (failure) on the part of those men. They knew it would draw scrutiny and our religion allows for real-world adjustments when public safety is involved. They should have waited till they landed and had privacy.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Joe-Wilmington, DE

      I agree. On an airplane of all places! I'm all for religious freedom, but why can't people wait until they get home or to a place of worship? Please have respect for others who may not understand or believe what you believe. Keep the religious stuff to yourselves.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  20. Sndp

    Alaska Airlines's spokesperson should have said this: "Alaska Airlines embraces the cultural and religious diversity of our passengers and employees but unfortunately our staff members are just plain dumb and can't make out prayers from frantic chanting".

    March 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • clearvoice1

      Has the Rabbie mentioned anything about the ritual of two men in the bathroom? I am interested to find out more about that.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • MIke Mazzla

      I have to disagree with you here.. a flight is not the place to stand up and chant and do all these things...do them in your church, temple , home whatever. if you have to do them at a certain time perhaps a public airplane isnt teh place to do it

      March 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Goose66

      I don't think in this case there was a difference between prayers and frantic chanting. I am tolerant of other religions and religious practices, I just don't like it if you can't practice your religion without getting it all over me. Please keep it personal.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • clearvoice1

      Does anyone know if any of the flight attendants activated the emergency exit and jumpped out of the airplane?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • jack

      The only thing missing is that Alaska Airlines should also kiss theirs asses

      March 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • clearvoice1

      There are so many unknowns in this case. Has the FBI found any condoms in their luggages?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • CEIL

      So now, in addition to taking care of the safety of every person on board, the crew now has to be completely familiar with any & all religions and the details therein? Stop being ridiculous–an airplane is NOT the place to carry out those types of things. And if they were ignoring the staff's directions then they were asking for trouble. (Also, why is it that we are just now hearing about people doing this? It can't be something new–so it must be the people who are suddenly so desperate to pray publicly that are starting the trend!

      March 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • clearvoice1

      I' here to get to the bottom of this case. Was the change table open after the two jewish guy left the bathroom?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:54 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.