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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. whythefuss

    Either way you slice it, it's the same. Bringing unnecessary attention to themselves without regard to how others would feel. There's no love of neighbor or kindness manifested.

    March 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  2. thesadpartis

    the sad part is that the rest of us somehow feel the need to apologize somewhat because of what happened to these people only because they are a part of That group that controls everything

    March 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  3. reality check

    it is only because these people are Jews that we are falling over ourselves to apologize to them because the average person did was not familar with their arcane practices

    gimme a break

    March 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  4. whythefuss

    Nothing has changed with these orthodox Jews. Jesus warned that the Pharisees would seek attention for themselves. Matt 23:5-8 They broaden the scripture containing case and bring undue attention to themselves. Jesus said personal prayers should be made in private. . What if someone tried to burn candles on a plane because of their religious beliefs? Would you just turn a blind eye to that? For everything there is a time and place.

    March 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  5. Digitalman

    Obviously people are very on edge flying these days and people of any religion should be very well aware of this fact, it has been very common for the extremists to chant in foreign languages some form of prayer before killing our troops and or beheading them on video etc., many Americans have probably seen Orthodox Jews wearing their black suits and hats with long beards walking down the street, many of American and European people would never have seen them, call it uneducated but for those who do not know or understand other fanatical religions where a prayer can't be said in our head quietly and doesn't require strange looking paraphernalia and accessories resembling what many soccer moms may think are bombs, ( keep in mind the past where there was a shoe bomb, and one of explosive liquid strapped to a guys crotch ) and seemingly odd behavior, i believe the Orthodox Jews here were irresponsible and insensitive to the fact that their behavior, demeanor and chanting, not obeying orders from the flight crew would be enough to scare a lot of people on board.
    We have to draw the line somewhere between what is politically correct and what is disturbing, flight crews will not allow a drunk to start shouting at everyone, if he will not sit down he will be arrested and if any fool says the word "bomb" in English or any other language (if anyone understood what they were saying) all the passengers jump them, like people trying to open the exit door recently, and the plane lands as quickly as possible or if there is an air Marshall they will be dealt with.
    As I was saying drawing the line much like as we have at our schools in the USA, separation of state and church for the interest of our kids and students, no one is allowed to start chanting out loud, no one is allowed to kneel on floor and start kissing the ground, a catholic cant recite the rosary and so on... this has to be the case on public planes too, lets say a Rastafarian says it's his religion to smoke a marijuana joint because of Jah, obviously the airlines will not allow this as it would disturb many other passengers, are we going to allow satanists to perform their rituals in flight ? or a devout catholic priest to light incense in a swinging ball and wave it around the plane, obviously no.
    Everybody needs to keep their religion to themselves, if you must pray pray in your head, don't chant out loud, dont start bowing in the aisle to Allah or yell Jihad, any ceremonies that need to be performed should be rescheduled, planes have to be an apparent religious fanatic free zone, period.
    now on the paranoid front, just for the heck of it, lets say the extremists read this article worldwide and see that the airlines are apologizing to people who disobey orders to sit, and chant foreign prayers and are ALLOWED to take out little black boxes and attach them to their wrists and foreheads, and that the airlines are going to educate the American and European and Latin cultures to be accepting of this ritual and telling us it's ok they are merely Orthodox Jews and not terrorists and we have to make an exception in their case, would this not have been a great experiment by the extremists to see how far they can push our political correctness, how much will we allow on a plane, what if they think ok, we will dress a few of our long bearded bombers as Orthodox Jews and everyone will be to afraid to offend us so we can go ahead and carry out an attack as we walk three at a time to a restroom, or not sit when told to, and pull out our c4 boxes.
    People can point fingers at the passengers who were supposedly uneducated with regard to the men in black chanting, but seriously these men must have been retarded to feel they could scare and act this way on a public flight right after take off, if nothing else belligerent, notice they didn't try that before take off because they knew the plane would not have left the ground, I don't think the whole American populous needs to be educated in the rest of the nations or worlds extreme religions and practices, I think that the law must be to all passengers to keep it to them selves, no one wants to see that bs, and I agree with some of the other posters regarding regular folk talking too loud and obnoxiously on their cell phones too that's almost as annoying.

    March 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Montreal guy

      Americans and others on international flights are a cosmopolitan lot – nobody with common sense should mistake three Jewish men praying with being terrorists. That was ignorance on the part of the flight crew (they need better training). Obviously, the three men should have explained themselves better – maybe there was a language barrier.

      March 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  6. Roxanne

    Ok it would have been a fight if I was onboard cause they didn't obey the rules to stay seated and buckle up. I don't think an apology is needed. I don't care what religion you are, obedience on another person's aircraft is paramount especially in this day and age! If you said God said stand up and do that, then I guess you wouldn't actually get in any trouble and there wouldn't be a story.

    March 16, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  7. mary

    I wondered aloud if Alaskian airlines are also going to learn the rituals of all religions so that they can better understand such as Catholics, Muslims, Hindu, Budhist, protestants, ect. That would be very nice AA! I know for sure that if those three men were Muslims, OMG the plane would be instantly surrounded with military planes. What a freeking double standard.

    March 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  8. lilcanadian

    The greater question is how did two of them actually fit into the lavatory?

    March 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • sarah

      Best post.

      March 16, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  9. Val

    Planes are a public place where people really need to learn to have some manners. Don't talk on the phone about your personal BS, don't have a group public ritual, don't have a food fight. I am so sick of getting on a plane and having other people's personal drama infringe on my right to a quite, peaceful experience.

    If these people were sitting next to me I would have asked them to stop disturbing me. The airline doesn't need to apologize to anyone. Take your ritual and don't force it on everyone else who paid good money for a ticket to fly in quiet, peaceful, comfort.

    March 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. itscool

    Thank you to Alaskan Airlines in their attempt to keep our skies safe. Anything that is out of the norm should raise a red flag. I think this should be less about religion and people being offended, and more about us being in this together, and keeping our fellow humans safe. The law is the law, and if people aren't willing to abide by it, then they should find other modes of transportation.

    March 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  11. Will

    I'm not Jewish but I am educated and I learned about some of the basic practices of Orthodox Jews. I care enough about different cultures to become educated rather than blame others for my ignorance, which seems to be a popular approach for many posters here.

    March 16, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  12. Binyamin Rosenzweig

    A disgrace to Orthodox Judaism! These guys were clearly morons! If they bothered learning their Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), they would know that they could pray a) BEFORE the flight, b) sitting down in their seats c) without putting on their tefillin (as long as they remembered to put them on at some point later in the day) or d) AFTER ASKING THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS!

    March 16, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Montreal guy

      Binyamin: Why don't you give those men the benefit of doubt? The article implies that they did respond to the flight crew's questions, however briefly. Maybe there was a language barrier? Maybe the flight crew just freaked out at seeing those men wearing tefilin? The airline did apologize, so they must have realized how they overreacted. Hopefully, this episode will be a learning experience for airlines and the general public, but also for Jewish men who want to pray on an airplane without disturbing fellow passengers and flight crew.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  13. scott

    When on a plane sit down and shut up.

    Religious nutcases are scary enough without doing it on plane. I say they all are banned from flying... that will cut the security problems. And if they want to go somewhere... let them pray at home to ... to magically transport them so I can sit and enjoy my flight.

    March 16, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Concerned citizen

      Only an ignoramus who takes everything in holy books literally like you. We respect your ridiculous atheist views, so respect everyone else's! What says your atheism isn't extremist? You want to shove your unbeliefs on everyone else.

      March 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  14. Steve

    Two things, First; the statement "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"
    They should realize that the Orthodox community and the Jewish Federation have nothing to do with one another as the first is Orthodox and the second is Conservative, Second statement "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. Actually he was just probably wishing that the other two would be done already as he had to use the same facilities as well.

    March 16, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Jorge

      Maybe the two that were the in bathroom together were being indoctrinated into the mile high club. Their buddy "standing gusard" was anxious to join in the festivities.

      March 16, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Montreal guy

      > hey should realize that the Orthodox community and the Jewish Federation have nothing to do with one another as the first is Orthodox and the second is Conservative [Who says the Federation is "Conservative?" It's a communal organization for all the Jews of Seattle – they should certainly be capable of explaining to the airlines what to expect in terms of Jews praying on airlines.]

      March 16, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  15. Pamela

    As a conservative Jewish American this situation upsets me for several reasons. Seing some of the negative comments on this post makes me feel as if we are going backwards as a culture rather than going forward. While orthodox Jewish Men may not be common to everyone, they certainly do not look like terrorists or would they ever be ones. I often struggle with the fact that as a woman disagree with some of the social actions of orthodox men. They were conducting daily prayer rituals but they were not on an El Al airplane where everyone knew what they were doing. It would have been in their best interest, not only for their safety but for the concern and future misconceptions of other passengers to simply stop quickly to let the airplane staff know what they were doing. G-d would have easily understood a break in prayer for a few seconds.

    As someone who works in NYC and lived through 9/11 I understand the fear. I carry that with me every time I travel. When I went through security shortly after 9/11 and they searched my bags and gave me a full body pat down I told the woman she had nothing to worry about with me. I showed her my name necklace in hebrew and she didn't understand what I could have meant. Before we insult or question the integrity of people we should learn who they are and what they stand for. Knowledge is power and respect can go a long way.

    March 16, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Will

      We are going backwards. The bigoted and intolerant people on the fringes have discovered new found power in the Republican party, and are seeking to erode all the gains of the past 50 years. Lose a freedom here, a protection there, all couched in the camoflague of keeping us safe from terrorists. And the sheep of the silent majority are letting it happen.

      March 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • JohnR

      Oh, what DOES a terrorist look like, Pamela?

      I've been pulled out of line for special hassle even in ultra-liberal Amsterdam and had my luggage go mysteriously missing, and the only sense I could make of it was that I was the one guy with long hair and a beard, for sure no rare sight in Amsterdam.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • molasses

      Agree with Pamela. Would only have taken a second to alert crew to their ritual and would have been extremely helpful had they not booked a flight certain to interfere with the timing of that ritual. I believe in the power and purpose of prayer. I do not believe that right to prayer should superimpose itself on other people...no matter what the situation was.

      March 16, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Pamela

      I did not mean to offend or infer anything with regards to not looking like a terrorist. I just meant that Orthodox Jewish Men have a common look that is portrayed in tv and the media, black coats, black hats, beards, etc.

      In the Jewish faith we are taught that health, danger, etc. always come FIRST before prayer, so if you are sick and cannot attend services or cannot fast on a holiday it is O.K. in g-d's eyes. If the plane was turbulant they could have prayed from their seats.

      Regardless of faith, appearance, etc. the world has unfortunately become very "afraid." People's first instinct is of feat and anger which sometimes comes from ignorance.

      March 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  16. Stacy

    Simple solution: If you're Orthodox Jewish and your prayer time is SOOOOO important to you, then don't disrupt it by FLYING ON A FREAKIN' PLANE. Schedule your flight for a different time.

    March 16, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Dan613

      Absolutely AGREE !!!!!

      March 16, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Steve

      And you are SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO very stupid

      March 16, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Montreal guy

      Stacy: Learn to be more tolerant of others. Praying in public is not (yet) a crime.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • joebloe

      no chit

      March 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Val

      Praying in public isn't a crime but they were holding a ritual for goodness sake. So should we allow Wiccans to drop their robes and fly skyclad while praying to the moon goddess? Should we allow catholic priests to hold a communion ceremony down the aisle while the catholics pray? There is a time and a place for everything. If someone wants to sit quietly and pray, they can do it without disrupting everyone else or holding a "ritual" on public transportation!

      March 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  17. Tariq

    Just imagine and really think, if these three passengers would have turned out to be Muslims. What would have been the storyline by BBC and Airline. What the reactions would have been.

    March 16, 2011 at 5:53 am |
    • Steve

      Probably nothing, as our Muslim President Obama would have rushed to their defense.

      March 16, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Concerned citizen

      Obviously they weren't BECAUSE THEY'RE JEWS! If you can't tell the difference you must have been living under a rock.

      March 16, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Saniya

      Yeah i agree 100%... If muslims were praying on a plane... there would be a way more dramatic "fear" and there would most DEFINITELY NOT be an apology... it would just be "routine" ..... oh if only people understood that PEOPLE can be at fault, not a generalized religious group... when will the intolerance end...
      and to those who think that we should be tolerant in allowing others to practice their religion openly, then this right should be applied to ALL religions...

      March 16, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • sarah

      Steve, that's in the running for dumbest comment on this article. I'm not an Obama fan, but really, could you just make an attempt to use some critical thinking skills? Even if Obama were Muslim (which he isn't and you saying he is doesn't make it so), the President has absolutely nothing to do with these kinds of incidents. Really, why can't you just not like the man without making things up or trying to drag that dislike into every situation? You make yourself ridiculous.

      March 16, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  18. rovi

    No need for any apology! If 3 Christians had acted in this way would there have been an apology? These guys should be fined for being a public nuisance. There is a time and place for prayer rituals and I as a passenger would be REALLY scared if anyone were praying out loud in an aircraft!!!

    March 16, 2011 at 5:43 am |
    • Concerned citizen

      That is completely ridiculous and insensitive.

      March 16, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  19. Aaajjjeewwww!!

    people people...If a muslim had done something like this then the news would have read " Alaskan Airline foils Jihadi Islamic Terrorist plans to blow up the plane, the terrorist in question were found with blackbox and tape official remote it must be C4"
    Bollocks..No need of any apology to these people who wear caps which cover their scalps only...

    March 16, 2011 at 4:44 am |
    • Josh

      Islam has inherently violent vibrations such as Jihad, Jews on the other hand have no tenant in the religion were one can become a martyr for blowing up a plane of innocent lives

      March 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • americano

      @Josh.
      you really have no right to make any judgement on Islam. if you were educated about this subject you would know that suicide is not according to Islam or the Quran. there is no relation between Islam and violence as there is no relation between a Christian president ordering the bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. If you had diversified your news readings, you would notice that there have been many violent encounters involving Jewish individuals. Thus it's not about the religions, but the personal choices.

      Wow.

      March 16, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Osam

      @Josh
      1. The Torah has more violent verses than the Qur'an. Read both of them.
      2. Israel has been the most condemned several times by many international human rights organizations for the human rights violations, up to war crimes. Would it be fair to attribute their atrocities to their holy book?
      3. Suicide bombing is not a Muslim invention, and it's being adopted by a few individual Muslims due to the terrible conditions they see of the general population of Muslims around the world, and finding that the US stands by and watch, and often support Israel and Middle Eastern non-democratic governments who suppress their people.

      One only hopes that the wave of democracy in the Middle East will help release a lot of tension and will fix the relationship between the Middle East and United States.

      March 16, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  20. Frequent Flyer

    I totally agree with @Proptop. Why should these people be treated any differently from other passengers. We are trying so hard to be politically correct that we can't help but trip over our feet. I fly often on business and several times I have witness these events. Most recent was on a Trans Atlantic flight where a family of OJs would not take their seats because it was close to their prayer time and they had to get prepared thus, the aircraft could not push back from the gate because they would not take their seats. Needless to say, we were delayed 45 minutes departing while the flight attendants tried to get them settled. Another time, on a Trans Atlantic flight, an OJ passenger decided to go in the galley to say his prayers and he took so long that the crew had to delay serving breakfast by half hour. In both instances, they couldn't be bothered about the other passengers.

    March 16, 2011 at 4:34 am |
    • Steve

      OJ orange juice? what a bunch of garbage.

      March 16, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Val

      I agree with you FrequentFlyer.

      Planes are a public place where people really need to learn to have some manners. Don't talk on the phone about your personal BS, don't have a group public ritual, don't have a food fight. I am so sick of getting on a plane and having other people's personal drama infringe on my right to a quite, peaceful experience.

      If these people were sitting next to me I would have asked them to stop disturbing me. The airline doesn't need to apologize to anyone. Take your ritual and don't force it on everyone else who paid good money for a ticket to fly in quiet, peaceful, comfort.

      March 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • molasses

      OJ as in Orthodox Jew...not orange juice.

      March 16, 2011 at 2:04 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.