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. David

    Completely inappropriate behavior. Look at it another way, if three men started chanting Our Fathers on an airplane and you're sitting several rows back, you're going to become very, very frightened that something is happening.

    March 18, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      And do you know what would happen if they all started to say the Pledge of Allegiance?

      They'd all hit their heads on the overhead bins...

      March 18, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  2. Flighty

    I am a flight attendant. I was raised as an orthodox jew. I am now a Christian who loves and respects the Jewish religion. IF I had been the flight attendant on that flight, I certainly would have understood what the men were doing HOWEVER I certainly would understand how the passengers and other flight crew might be concerned. It is easy for certain Jews to say they would have known if they had seen the tefilin but that is because they have seen it all their lives. Think about it, if it is something you have never seen, you might be concerned as well. Communication is all that was needed. Flight attendants cannot know what everyone on board is thinking or doing without some communication. I believe that the men should have taken a moment to explain what they were about to do. I do not know if they became confrontational or ignored the flight attendants by refusing to communicate. IF they did, then that would certainly be wrong, considering the times that we live in and the securtiy issues we face. We would need to issue an apology if they tried to comply and we ignored them. That would be wrong.
    If those same men were sitting next to Muslims that congregated together near the lavs and acted "strangely", they might be concerned as well. The average American will not know the difference between the orthodox Jew and the Muslim praying in the airplane. We ALL need to be diligent! Jews, Christians and ALL Americans should be concerned about extremist groups that seek ways for our demise.

    March 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  3. John

    I'm a secular Jew (ethnically and culturally Jewish, theologically atheist) and this article first and foremost made me laugh. Yes, I agree orthodox Jews are classified as religious extremists, but let's face it: they've never gone blowing up a plane. I simply find it funny that someone could look at tefillin and think it is bomb material.

    March 18, 2011 at 5:55 am |
  4. Nina

    If they'd obeyed the instructions of the cabin crew (i.e. seatbelts fastened and remain in seats) as all are *required* by law to do – there wouldn't have been a problem. If they'd answered the questions of the cabin crew and explained what they were doing – there wouldn't have been a problem.

    Assuming the facts as stated are correct (and easy to find out by asking other passengers) then these gentlemen were being ignorant, not the cabin crew. If they'd explained that they were praying and if they needed to do it at that exact moment when all passengers had been instructed to stay in their seats – they should have alerted the crew to their needs and if it wasn't a compromise to their, or anyone else's safety, I'm certain they would have been respectfully accommodated. The thing is, respect is a two way street. You can't demand respect without giving it too.

    March 18, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Isaac

      I concur.

      March 18, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  5. Isaac

    To amend my previous post I would also like to add the following,

    1. They most certainly should have let the flight attendants know what they were doing if it made anyone uncomfortable. They were stupid for not doing that, IF in fact they didnt. However, i flat out do NOT believe that they refused to answer the flight attendants questions. No one is that stupid. Jews are "known" for many things, stupidity not being one of them

    2. Jews dont blow up planes.

    3. No federal laws were broken.

    4. YOU ARE THOROUGHLY SCANNED BEFORE YOU GET ON THE PLANE!!!! METAL DETECTORS, PAT DOWNS, etc....What the !@# is the likelihood that THREE SEPARATE PEOPLE were able to get a "bomb" aboard???

    Thats it.

    Good night everyone.


    March 17, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  6. Steve

    If this prayer ritual is so important then why would these 3 men be flying if they had to perform this prayer? Is it a specific time it must be done? Then they could have booked a flight at a different time... They also could have been a little more open with the people of the airlines letting them know ahead of time what they will be doing. I mean 3 men all of the sudden break out in a prayer ritual where everyone can hear it?? Yeah, I would be a little scared myself... I understand peoples right to free religious beliefs, I also understand respect for it. But, this is also a 2way street where these 3 men should have shown respect for others not of their faith...

    March 17, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  7. carrie

    I am all for religious beliefs, but passengers need to follow instructions from the flight staff while on board an aircraft. I am a Christian, and if I saw this on a plane, I would be freaking out. If anyone's behavior is suspect, airline officials & security have the right to search your luggage, and question you. I dont think this is hatred. I think this is normal for our society today in light of 9/11. These gentlemen should have thought about this before acting this way, and if they have to pray at a certain time, they should have scheduled their flight accordingly.

    March 17, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  8. lisa

    the individuals on this plane do not need an apolgy. they should give one. if THEY had more understanding and tolerance they would have politely informed the airline staff that they would be holding a ritual on a PUBLIC plane. i am catholic, should i go on a plane an perform an exorcism? or a baptism? it's absurd. praying is one thing-rituals are another. and no one has the right to include anyone in their rituals. what if there was someone on the plane that had heart attack from fear? i KNOW as a world trade survivor, i would have snapped and probably starting attacking them from fear. people, you need to respect other peoples rights to NOT be involved in YOUR religion.

    March 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • David

      How about being stopped for praying with your Rosary beads or because your forehead is marked on Ash Wednesday? Ignorance is the problem. Communication, education and tolerance are solutions.

      March 17, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Steve

      I agree 100% with you. Other people on the plane have rights as well even other people who have different religious beliefs.

      March 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  9. Les

    Judaism-religion of the devils

    March 17, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  10. JDS

    I'm tolerant of most religions (except islam, as it is NOT a religion) but there is a limit to my tolerance. I wouldn't have tolerated this kind of disturbance on an airplane. You need to pray outloud like that, go to the bathroom. But don't disturb and upset an entire airplane with your religious prayers. Doesn't matter who you are. It's disrespectful.

    How would they like it if some white guy from the south got up there and started speaking in tongues and handling poisonous snakes?

    Come on Jewish guys, that was UN-cool. Completely.

    March 17, 2011 at 3:53 am |
  11. JDS

    I'm tolerant of most religions (except islam, as it is NOT a religion) but there is a limit to my tolerance. I wouldn't have tolerated this kind of disturbance on an airplane. You need to pray out-loud like that, go to the bathroom. But don't disturb and upset an entire airplane with your religious prayers. Doesn't matter who you are. It's disrespectful.

    How would they like it if some white guy from the south got up there and started speaking in tongues and handling poisonous snakes?

    Come on Jewish guys, that was UN-cool. Completely.

    March 17, 2011 at 3:52 am |
  12. Mr Spockk

    Praying is a waste of time.

    March 17, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • Christian Patriot

      Mr. Spockk,
      Praying is NOT a waste of time I assure you. Many of my prayers to God have been answered. By the power & authority of the blood of Jesus Christ I pray for you to come to know Jesus Christ as Lord of your life. Amen.

      March 17, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • I'm a Misotheist

      I pray you will be struck by an invisibly brain disease that makes you delusional.

      Whoa, maybe there is a god after all!

      March 29, 2011 at 6:15 am |
  13. Mr Spockk

    They would have scared and annoyed me if I were on that plane..

    March 17, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  14. AlexSaied

    If you can talk out loud, you can pray out loud, it's called freedom.

    March 17, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  15. Bill

    The flight crew and everyone on the plane had a right to be nervous, afterall it was religious fanatics that hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center. Keep your religion to yourself, and TSA needs to add these teflillin boxes and other religious paraphernalia (ie. bibles, korans, bloody chicken heads) to the long list of items prohibited on a plane. When you get to your final destination safely, after flying through the sky at 32,000 ft @ 500 mph, no thanks to modern day technological advances, feel free to praise God, do a rain dance, and ask Glenn Beck to tell you what to think.

    March 17, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  16. Paul

    I am off the Spaghetti Monster cult – does this mean its ok now to do my Nervous Plankton dance up and down the aisles during the flight?

    March 16, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • Ben

      Yes. We followers of the FSM (blessed be his name) must preform his rituals to a tee, just like the orthodox must do to appease their bloodthirsty god.

      March 18, 2011 at 5:33 am |
  17. Terrie

    I am a 60 year old Jewish woman, and although I am not an orthodox Jew, I certainly know what tfillin are and how they are used. Yet I fail to see why the 3 Jewish gentlemen: a) needed to do their praying on an AIRPLANE, and b) why they didn't simply take a moment to explain to the cabin crew (and to the people seated around them, so they wouldn't be disturbed) exactly what they were doing. Such a deal!

    March 16, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  18. Lawrence

    I believe the Airline had no reason to apologize to the three men. Their actions had no place on an airplane. They should have prayed either before the flight or after. It is they who were inconsiderate of their surroundings. They should have acted more responsibly during their time in the air. The crew did nothing wrong, in fact their handling of the incident should be commended.

    March 16, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • Opinionman

      Lawrence is correct. The Jewish men should have shown consideration for their fellow passengers and crew. THEY should be apologizing.

      March 17, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  19. Spidey-Man

    Apologize for what?!! If a kid cries on the plane the parents get chastised and kicked off... Some bearded morons praying out loud aren't any more annoying? If I see anyone totally ignoring the repeated seatbelt warnings while getting any kind of boxes out of the overhead with tape and possibly wires hanging off I'm gonna TACKLE THEM!!! And I'm going to hope I've really hurt them. ACLU... Back the freak off of this one. You're out of your heads thinking you're going to have a setup like this go totally the other way because we're supposed to be tolerant... Tell these Jewish morons to be more tolerant. By the way... I'm an atheist and I could care less about religion so don't go posting prejudiced remarks about me. Worship however you want as long as noone gets hurt. But this is setting us up fpr a big time catastrophe.

    March 16, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Isaac

      They arent "wires" and their is no tape you blithering fool. They are black leather straps. While your idiocy and ignorance may be comforting for you, they are certainly disconcerting for the world at large.

      March 18, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  20. 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 or hear that bs .

    March 16, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Minkakross

      when you write that much text people tend to tune out or skip over it so you really need to make your point in the first few sentences if you want us to care or keep reading.

      March 17, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • moto

      very nice! thank you!!

      March 17, 2011 at 1:27 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.