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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. olderthan

    How many ID 10 T's out there don't know the difference between the word "aloud" and "loud'? First off, the Jewish men should either have explained to the crew beforehand, or refrained from prayer during the flight. I mean, come on, that's just bad manners to pray on a plane. It freaks-out the other people , and it really doesn't matter whether you're praying in a language they know, or not. Save the prayers for when an engine goes out, or a door pops off and you see some fellow passengers (not wearing their seatbelts, ahem) get sucked-out. You are always welcome to thank your deiety (or deities) upon safe landing. Can't we all just learn to fly together?

    March 15, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  2. midggick

    I am Jewish and I fully understand the concern that the flight crew felt. If I had not seen my grandfather "lay Tefilin" use the little black boxes, I probably flip out also.I feel that these men were highly provocative and pretty sure that they didn't give a damn.
    In general, I find that ultra religious people tend not to care about the average person around them be they Jewish,Christian,Muslim, etc. take your pick.
    Both sides need to be aware of each others

    March 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  3. greg

    I have absolutely no problem with any religion, personally I choose not to practice a religion, i do have a problem with thin skinned zealots that defend their religion no matter how extreme the religious poractices seem (I lived in NYC for several years and this is the first I've heard of this practice) these guys are lucky the other passengers did not decide to take matters into their own hands and defuse the situation, those other passengers were likely scared to death these clowns were wrong period, not everybody understands yiddish or whatever language these clowns were speaking I personally would have defended the plane somebody would have got hurt these guys should have been charged with creating a public disturbance and stupidity period

    March 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  4. greg

    i would have thought the nazis at TSA should certainly have cleared this matter up before these guys were allowed on the plane or were they "exempt" from the grimy paws of TSA and beyond that are these guys nuts have they not seen a newscast over the past 10 years?

    March 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • greg

      woops i read tyhe alaskan airlines part i missed the from Mexico City thing no wonder TSA did not catch it I forgot foreigners are allowed to fly into this country it is only people in america that TSA gets to violate by all means that makes sense

      March 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  5. Mac

    Rules are rules; they exist for a reason, so get with the program and cut the excuses.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  6. from jordan

    All you anti smites get a life or a job at least and stop using your time as if it is the in thing to harass jews and see if you can put a worse comment then the one before you. They did nothing wrong just cause these 3 guys did something stupid you don't have to go attack the jews how would it feel if the jews come and attack us because one non jew made a fool out of him self I mean face it they would be attacking us a whole day. Not everyone is perfect keep that In mind before you go and start posting comments like its going out of style!!!!! Get a life

    March 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  7. mich

    It's been said already, but most of the comments on here are repeats anyway –

    This shouldn't be about the religious side of it – The fact that they got up when told not to, while the seatbelt sign was on, and even went into their bags, opening overhead bins/etc. ALWAYS causes rattled nerves for people on board when I fly (multiple times a month). When someone gets up when not supposed to, the flight attendants have to get up as well (putting them at risk) to "remind" people to remain seated.

    Any time someone (especially if it's a group acting together) disobeys a flight attendant, there is tension in the air. Rightfully so.

    Done and Done. This isn't religious, it's three men refusing to follow safety rules on an airplane.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  8. Yinka

    I am just wondering if Muslim are allowed to start chanting Allah u Akbar in a plane full of people,I don't give a damn is you are Christian,Jew,Muslim,Hindu or rain maker for that matter,you need to perform your religious ritual in designated area,not in plane full of people.
    Let see if they will Issue an apology to a Muslim if any ever pull that crap.they need to train the attendant to tell them to shut the hell up or be tied down to the seat.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  9. jackie

    Why did they HAVE to pray during the flight and not give an explanation! The airline crew did their best in handling that situation.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  10. Jewish guy

    BTW, Jew won't carry prayer books or tefilin into a lavatory. The flight crew should have known better, and the airline correctly apologized for over-reacting. However, those three men should have asked permission to say their prayers while standing, or opt to read their prayers quietly while seated.

    March 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  11. Zafar Khan

    My question is why was Juan Williams not on this flight. sajepress dot com

    March 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  12. PW

    You know, sensitivity is two way. You'd think people would know when thei rituals might appear weird to the culturally unaware - and could maybe compromise and dial it back a bit? I can't believe God cares about how one dresses to pray.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  13. Marty Gardneer

    Loving Wings by Marty Gardner is a new airline book published with 40 years of flying & all kinds of situations. It is funny, interesting and informative. It covers 4 decades of Pilots, crews, Flt. Attendants, passengers, problems, solutions, romantic,and describes the 4 different eras of people, clothes, mannerisms, and actions. Available at Amazon.com, Borders,
    Barnes&Noble, libraries, or http://www.eloquentbooks.com/LovingWings. by Marty Gardner. It is a hardback & a keeper.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  14. james253

    I don't flippin' care what religion you are, but if you are on a plane with ME - or anybody else for that matter - you can jolly well do what the airline employees tell you to do. Sit down and shut up - and behave.

    Plus - if your God demands such outward manifestations of faith, then you might want to try mine - I can just speak to my guy - directly - just Him and me - quietly. I have a couple of verses that will back up my claim, if you wish.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Ben

      Your verses don't back up anything, Mr. Circular Logic. My holy book is true because it says so here in my holy book.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • MissV

      If these three men had any respect for their religion, passengers and crew, then they should have explained what they're about to do and call it a day–not be evasive in the explanation when asked, and make everyone wonder if they're praying to their Allah, prophet, etc...
      There's something to be said fore communication especially when you're not in temple, home or mosque. For crying out loud, why does everything have to be so complicated with all these religions??!!

      March 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  15. Salvatore

    I have to agree with the airline here. First, I am 45 years old and live in a metro area and I have never seen or heard of this ritual. Second, I always tell my kids to act appropriately. How can they tell what's appropriate? Look around... is anyone else swinging on the bars like a monkey? Third, I think that these guys know exactly what they were doing and accomplished it. When the flight personell tell you to do something, you do it. When they ask you a question, you answer it. Let's not be childish morons about this. Net time some terrorist wants to bomb a plane he'll use this as a method, right. Last but not the least, if your god can't give you a little extra time to wait to pray, you need a better god. Namaste.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Salvatore

      Sorry, the filter fell off of my mouth at the end there. Talking like that does nothing for the conversation and I apologize. You should have to hit "post" three times 😉

      March 15, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  16. Will G.

    Please people, let not forget are Amendment Rights! We are a Nation of All types of people around the World, with different beliefs and religions. It's what are Country is founded on. So try to have respect for all, and then there will be Peace on Earth....

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

      Blatenely ignoring the instructions from and not answering questions to the flight crew, people who are in charge of the safety of all on the plane, is not a right. When asked what they were doing they should have said... "fighting cavities?"

      March 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Guthrie

      Puleeze!! Wouldn't it be special if all passengers simultaneously and verbally exercised their rights to impose their religious beliefs on all other passengers exercising their rights to impose their religious beliefs!

      March 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  17. Jerry

    Kissing cousins.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  18. Celeste

    That airplane in the photo is a Southwest Airlines 737, not an Alaska Airlines plane.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  19. Donajam

    With all the concern the flight crew had, why on earth did the flight continue to LA? It should have immediately returned to mexico City, and the offending passengers removed and questioned, and the plane searched for explosives. Its not up to us to determine if someone's fanatical religious practices are benign or not. If it feels like a threat, it is a threat!

    March 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  20. jm

    as usual, everyone is ranting about religon...this has nothing to do with religon...when passengers don't adhere to instructions and act in a strange manner, the airlines has ever right to do what it needs to in order to make sure the other passengers are safe...doesn't matter what religion they are or what origin of race they are...if something did happen, then the airline would be getting grief right now about not contacting security officials...like the airlines staff is supposed to be incredibly familiar with every aspect of all religions...give me a break...they shouldn't have apologized for anything especially since the passengers in question didn't listen to the instructions they were given.

    March 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • SLI

      Yes, I totally agree with "JM" – why should the airline have to apologize for this bizarre behavior of these passengers? Imagine if they were three Muslims chanting in Arabic and acting equally bizarre – they would scramble F-14s....again, not because of religious intolerance but because of weird behavior in flight.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:13 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.