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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. Pragmatic1One

    Can Holiness Church goers run up and down the aisle of a plane speaking in tongues? Can a christians start smearing each others forehead with anointing oil while shouting "in the name of Jesus", while on a plane? Can a Muslim start praying to the east while saying " Al Akbar", while on a plane?

    People have a right of freedom from the exercise of religion, but I guess that is not the case when it comes to judaism/jewish religion. Why is there an apology when these orthodox jews disregarded the requests of the flight crew, which should have resulted in further detention after the flight? What happened to the "Flying Imams?"

    I agree with an earlier post, if my wife and children would have accompanied me on that flight, I would have engaged these three (3) idiots out of fear that another 911 attempt was underway. No apology from the airline.

    March 16, 2011 at 4:31 am |
  2. MARK

    Not to change the subject, BUT ... Leave it to these CNN Idiots ..... That's not a Picture of Alaska Airlines. Don't associate the Airline in the picture with the Airline in the Article. All the pictures available on the Web and everywhere else, and they STILL screw it up ?? IDIOTS !!

    March 16, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  3. wow

    this happened on alaska airlines, correct? then why is there a pic of a southwest airlines 737? CNN, please check your stock photos more carefully.

    March 16, 2011 at 1:07 am |
  4. chuck

    Praying or not, use some common sense. And why could they not just explain to the flight crew what they were doing instead of being unresponsive, sketchy and going in the bathroom together? The airline did not need to apologize for anything as I'm sure anybody in their place would have done the same thing.

    March 16, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  5. jose gonzalez

    These men are extremely obnoxious and pushy.Seems to me, they were just looking for attention.They should have prayed before the flight took off or after the plane landed.They should be ashamed of their behavior,knowing they were creating a disturbance to the crew and the other passengers.Typical Jews.

    March 16, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  6. DAN

    first, the airline should not be nor expected to apologize to these people or any other people who act like this on board a plane.
    2nd, they went through security and I guess security didn't alert the airline these people had these religious things with them.
    3rd, did the men let security know they were going to have a prayer ritual right after take off, probably not,hence no warning to said airline
    4th, I thought we had on board cops on all flights now, where were they? why didn't they get involved when 3 men started pulling out little black boxes with wires attached?
    I guess we really don't have cops on all flights, I'll bet the terrorist know up front which flights will have the cops and which ones won't while the average passenger will not have this information.
    these men along with any and all people should have consideration for the mood of todays airlines and when they disregard that consideration for whatever reason they should be detained and educated until the point comes in which they understand that a little communication goes a long way towards avoiding an unpleasant situation. It is said these 3 were business men. That implies some level of education. To bad they were so stupid.

    March 15, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  7. John

    "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"

    it does not matter what they where doing. no apology required.

    March 15, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  8. Kirk Lott

    Alaska Airlines was RIGHT to turn the plane around, and WRONG to apologize. What if I was in a cult religion that required lighting my shoes on fire during flight?

    Freedom of religion is a right, but it's up to the minority to adapt the majority.

    March 15, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  9. John

    This is ABSURD. I mean really?? Now much all airlines go through and train their employees for "orthodox jewish customs". If it were 3 muslim men, I have a hard time believing we would be asking employees to get trained by a muslim priest.
    I am tired of the special privileges afforded to Jews in this country.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • Tired of Special Privs

      Amen, brother.

      March 16, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  10. Ed

    I've been on a few flights from New York to London, during the flight, there were usually several Orthodox Jewish passengers who would stand up and perform their prayer rituals, just like they were described in the article. One of the main reasons they conducted their prayers is because the flight left New York in the evening, and as we flew toward Europe, the sun would eventually come up, so the Jews would be performing their mandatory morning prayers.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  11. Maya Pinion

    Tempest in a teapot. I'm not sure how many Mexican flight attendants understand Hebrew. Sounds like they didn't communicate in the Jews' native language.

    I don't know how you get two rabbis in an airline lavatory, but it sounds like the beginnings of a good joke. I'm also not sure of where a guy in line for the restroom is supposed to look. There aren't that many places besides the floor, around the cabin and towards the door. Perhaps ogling a stewardess would have made her more comfortable? And who hasn't appeared anxious waiting in line for the restroom?

    Since when is it the flight attendants' job to inspect every little item that the passenger brings on board? Isn't that security's job? I've flown out of Mexico City – I thought they were fairly competent. Just make sure the passengers don't have their Nanos on at take off and landing.

    The flight attendants were alert, reported their fears appropriately, and were wrong The airline apologized. Let's all get over this. If we ban prayer on airplanes, we might get a bigger earthquake. The rabbis have connections.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • midgick

      Maya,

      Great answer and explanation.

      March 16, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  12. ScaryDAve

    Dear god, please protect me from your followers.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • DAN

      AMEN BROTHER!

      March 15, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  13. Sulayman F

    How very different from the reaction for the "Flying Imams" where the Right tried saying the Airline was the correct ones, and Congress tried passing laws protecting the airline

    March 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  14. sagansgirl

    When we outgrow religion as a species maybe these types of insane misunderstandings will stop happening. And, you know, wars and stuff, too.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  15. Yammo

    Yeah, these things are bound to happen, and there's nothing wrong with it from my perspective as an observant (Orthodox) Jew. People don't know what Tefillin are, people don't know that we pray. If the passengers don't explain it, how is the crew supposed to know? If would be one thing if this was in New York, however I think it's the passengers' responsibility to inform the crew so there's no alarm. Having said that, this is no biggie and there's no reason why anyone should have to spend money on "diversity training".

    March 15, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Anon

      I think that's a good point. It should be the passenger's responsibility to inform the crew in this type of situation. They did nothing wrong, but they should have known that their actions could have caused alarm with people who are unfamiliar with this type of prayer.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  16. Angela

    Alaskan Airlines absolutely should NOT be apologizing. You don't go onto a plane and strap black boxes to yourself. At the *very* least the men should have been fully cooperative and explained to the flight attendants what was going on, but overall it's just unacceptable behaviour.
    If you go onto a plane and say you have a bomb, you get in a ton of trouble, even if it's not true.
    The same should go for those acting like they do.
    I'm all for religious tolerance but not when it impedes the comfort and safety of others. Have some consideration.

    March 15, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  17. Andra

    In this day and age, I don't care what religion you are, it shouldnt be done in this manner. I'm not being unsensitive, it's just common sense and we are in AMERICA. Why would they make themselves a target in this manner. Why dont THEY make the effort to let people around them know what they are going to do, or let the airline staff know they need to pray. IT SCARES PEOPLE! DUH! TERRORISTS ARE TRYING TO KILL US!!! I bet they dont know everything about MY religion and my rituals? Why can't plain old common sense be used today?

    March 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  18. Bobby B.

    Are you kidding me? What a freaking joke. Alaskan Airlines should not be apologizing for exercising basic common sense (which apparently these passengers were not). People in America need to take responsibility for themselves and their actions and not expect everyone else around them to cater to their emotional and spiritual needs!!

    March 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • uncle sam

      So this is how freedom dies? Well at least you feel safe and secure because your scared of religious boogey men, you know there are FEMA camps ready for you to be really safe from any disasters.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • Curious

      @uncle sam, grow up. these yahoo's could have answered the flight attendants questions. Was it that it was a female flight attendant and the jewish boys would have been defiled had they spoken to her? where is an air marshal when you need one?

      March 16, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  19. Name*Teresa

    Always. Prayer

    March 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  20. Frank

    Why must these men pray on the plane in this manner? Can't they pray before? I am sure God will help them either way or did God indicate they have to pray after they have taken off?

    March 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Joe

      " do not pray in front of men or on the street corner to be seen by men or reviered by men. instead go into your room close the door and pray in secret and there your father can see you and grant your prayer I say they received there reward

      March 15, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Michael Klein

      Sometimes time schedules do not allow enough time to pray before a flight. Orthodox Jewish law prescribes specific times of the day for certain prayers, so if a plane leave early in the morning, the time before the flight may not be the time for morning prayer.

      March 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Proptop

      If a devout Muslim prayed on a plane with little black boxes and tape with what appeared to be wire and ignored repeated requests to stop... could you imagine the consequences? I am a Christian and I can't take a tube of tooth paste in my cary on luggage so why an the hell should the Jewish be able to take little black boxes on board and pray and freak everyone else out!?

      March 15, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • Guin

      Joe, they're Jewish. Your New Nestament does not dictate their religion.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • Mike

      @Proptop- I agree 100%

      March 16, 2011 at 1:21 am |
    • Curious

      Why did the 3 not answer the questions asked of them by the flight crew? Arrogant arrogant arrogant.

      March 16, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • Garrett

      Joe – Um, they aren't Christians, that is from the Gospels (twit).

      March 16, 2011 at 2:53 am |
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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.