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. Ronnie

    It is always scary when terrorist pray out loud on a plane.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  2. hma234

    The airline shouldn't be apologizing. The three men should apologize for not discussing their specific needs ahead of time with the crew. Jewish, Christian, Muslim...whatever the case may be, I think it is perfectly reasonable in a post-9/11 era for people to get nervous when they see people on a plane, 34 thousand feet in the air, praying out loud in a foreign language and ignoring the instructions of flight personnel. What were these guys thinking? Freedom and respect goes both ways. They should respect the concerns, safety and privacy of the passengers on the plane.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      What happened to it being a federal offense to disobey the instructions of the flight crew anyway??

      March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  3. Steve

    Peoples nutty religions – the cluprit of most of the problems on the planet political and otherwise. It's your choice people, but keep your thoughts and crazy beliefs to yourself. Especially those from that part of the world!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  4. NP4507

    If these were Muslim men, they would have been arrested and put on a "no fly" list. Just because they're Jewish, they're getting apologies.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • fork E

      Maybe that's because Jews aren't well known for hijacking airplanes you moron!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • luckluck

      absolutely. Everyone scares of jews power in the US. They would shut down the company, if they didn't apologize.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • luckluck

      fork E, They are well known on Hijacking a whole nation that caused the plane hijackings and causing the world unrest and chaos.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Marine4life

      fork E needs to go back to school.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  5. Mike

    The crew did the right thing the passengers were in the wrong.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  6. Owen4

    Tell you what, I'm

    March 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Owen4

      Tell you what, I'm Catholic but if someone stood up next to me on a plane and started loudly reciting the rosary, I'd tackle him too. I mean, really guys?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  7. CW

    I'm Jewish and I think that's ridiculous that they HAVE to pray together out loud on the plane like that. Of course if this was before 9/11, I think it wouldn't have been a problem, just a nuisance.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  8. MrsFizzy

    Just wondered – what happens if it's time for Muslims to pray when they're on a flight? What if a group decided to assemble around the lavatories and conduct Muslim prayer?? (well, I think we know what would happen...) But why is it OK for this group to conduct their religious rituals, refuse to follow instructions, but not for others?!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  9. pp

    If these 3 individuals were muslims, They would have been sent to GITMO

    March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  10. bshack

    check out this website it will make you very happy! http://www.bshack.124online.com

    March 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  11. Will

    This wasn't about passengers getting annoyed. It was about ignorance of other religions. Can't tell the difference between a Jew or an Arabian. Yeah, you gotta watch out for them there Jews. They might be jihadists! /sarcasm /rant

    March 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • luckluck

      I can tell the difference between them and Palestine always reminds of that religion.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  12. Aniram

    i guess since they were jews – the airline wants to try to understand. If Muslims tried to pray on a flight it would have been assumed they were terrorists.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      What about some Christian sects speaking in tongues or handling snakes??

      March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • alex

      oh yeah i agree with u on that one....thats an automatic guilty until proven innocent...

      March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  13. jo an

    These guys scare me even when they are on the ground.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  14. EatRunDive

    So since this occured right after takeoff, if the crew was really concerned about safety why didn't the plane turn right back around and land in Mexico City?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  15. les3547

    I have no prejudices about whatever religion one desires to practice . . . IN PRIVATE . . . so it upsets me greatly that Alaska Airlines would apologize. What about protecting the rest of the passengers from zealots who are so self-absorbed they couldn't care less if their exaggerated piety infringes on others' space? Isn't piety suppose to be humble, personal, quiet, and sincere? If Alaska Airlines is going to allow a few to inconvenience many, I'll be avoiding that airline at all costs.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • fermata

      wow, this doesn't sound like you give a crap about safety violations. You just don't want to be anywhere near jews practicing their religion. Very nice.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  16. Americansharp

    OH give me a break. They knew what they were doing. Praying should only be allowed when the go into an uncontrolled 600 MPH dive into the ocean.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Bhavin

      But no tin a loud and obnoxious manner

      March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Bhavin, in an uncontrolled 600 MPH dive into the ocean – at least then they won't be the only ones being loud.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  17. Pat

    They are luckly they did not get hurt by the crew & passangers... I can only think that with all that has happened over the years with bombs and people taking over planes these men should have done things differently. It seeme to me that they did NOT care what kind of trouble that they were causing. They just cared about themselves.....

    March 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  18. Ana

    Com'on it will take some common sense to not pray out loud in the air plane, crazy people, they think they are above everyone and closer to god, cases like this increase only hatred towards organized religions.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  19. this day and age

    I don't think jahweh would have had a problem with these guys exercising a little common sense discretion

    March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  20. connie

    They should have been kicked off the plane, no praying and disregarding what the airline employees says. They should not be allowed to fly again until they can comply with the rules of the airlines. It is not going to kill them to wait and pray when they get off the plane

    March 15, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Hank

      This is what would have happened if they were Muslim rather than Jewish.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • RL Turn

      If they were Muslim, they would have been SHOT!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • artist51

      Totally agree with your comments. Well put!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • luckluck

      You need to study their power in this country to learn a bit about them.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • jared

      Perhaps if the pilot did a better job, there would be no need to pray to God during the flight. Is it possible that these men saved the lives of everyone on the plane by connecting to the holy one during their time of fear?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • DRB

      When was the last time an Orthodox Jew blew himself up in a plane full of innocent civilians? Hmmm... All you people who are so quick to condemn these men are completely clueless and uneducated. Don't worry, you're like millions of other Americans, who have no real world education. There were no wires involved in their prayers, just items that are unknown to the racist, uneducated, scared American public. I was on a plane, sitting next to a Muslim man who began praying and bowing and speaking Arabic during a night flight once... I didn't go to pieces and alert the feds. Get over yourselves.

      If they had been Christians, there would've been no problem. Yet Christians are responsible for plenty of death and destruction in the name of god. Get off your racist butts and go out and learn something. Read a book form time to time, instead of watching the TV all the time.

      FYI, I'm a white, American... born and raised, so don't go there.



      March 15, 2011 at 3:02 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.