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. Margroks

    I would tend to say that anything which was loud and disruptive, regardless of the motive, should be prohibited.

    March 29, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  2. The Rational Man

    It is well known that the public is very cautious and especially alert when on a plane and in airports. Ignorant or not of the Othodox Jewish rituals, a sight like that is not one that one regularly sees on a flight and as such can cause unease and alarm in onlookers.

    As such, I feel there is a lack of communication and common sense in this situation. If the prayer needed to be done aloud then and there, the three in prayer should have had the common sense to inform the flight attendant so she may relay it to anyone who had concerns. Also if not informed, the flight attendant should have inquired so she may get her and other passenger's questions answered and alleviate any concerns.

    You have a right to religious freedom and you also have a right to feel secure when flying. These rights can coexist with a little communication.

    March 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  3. ANP

    I am torn between what to think about this. I am first of all proud that these men were not too scared of what others would think and that they went ahead and did what they believed to be right. Second, I find it completely okay to pray anywhere at anytime. But third, I do think that the men should have informed the authorities first of what they were going to do, then again maybe they weren't frequent flyers or maybe they weren't used to being around folks that are not like them and didn't realize that they would scare others. People need to stop jumping to their first emotion about it and re-evaluate their thinking and look at the situation from both sides, from those gentiles who were scared to those Jews who were praying. Both sides have good excuses to their heightened emotions....so just look at the whole picture.

    March 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  4. JA

    While I'm for religious freedom and worshiping however you want, the three men pretty much brought it on themselves. All they had to do was show one of the phylacteries to a flight attendant and explain that they're a part of ritual prayer that's done in Hebrew and they could have avoided the whole incident. So really, it's their own fault.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  5. coloniel sanders

    does this mean its bad to pray in Spainish when your at a Mexiacan resuraunt

    March 27, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • kentucky fried

      Is an airplane the Jewish equivalent of a restaurant?!....

      Your analogy makes zero sense.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  6. Pete

    Anyone who thinks strapping a box to themselves on a passenger airplane will not get a negative reaction from the flight crew or other passengers has had their head in the sand for the last ten years.

    March 27, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  7. Richie P

    There's no reason anybody should be getting stuff out of the overhead compartment during the flight. You put stuff you need access to under the seat in front of you. The overhead is only for stuff you won't need until you get to off the plane.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  8. sara

    i'd just like to point out that there was wrong done on both sides- the men absolutely should have told the flight crew ahead of time just as it would be helpful if the crew were a little more culturally sensitive. i'm jewish as well although i am not orthodox- the prayers are time sensitive and while i can understand why in the post 9/11 era they could seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable to some people, they are a critical part of the faith to orthodox jews.

    so while the discomfort is absolutely understandable and valid, the vicious and uninformed language that people are using on here is unecessary

    March 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Dawn

      i think God is more understanding than humans and he could wait until the flight was over

      March 27, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  9. CharlieSeattle

    Normal people pray silentlly. Prima Donnas pray loudly to disturb others intentionally to draw attention to themselves.

    Ya, they got it.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Deneen

      "Normal" people pray any way they NEED TO.
      Most pray out loud
      Any cleric prays out loud-they are supposed to-they also follow whatever 'rules' their church/temple says they must do!

      "Divas" are whoever MUST be loud.
      Evangelical-Salvation Army-Muslim Ahman(sp)-Baptist-etc the list is endless.

      You should read how the prophets preached back in the day per the bible-sackcloth, ashes AND LOUD!

      March 28, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • I'm a Misotheist

      Thank you. Spot on. I had to type a paragraph to say the same thing, and I said it less than half as well.

      March 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • I'm a Misotheist

      I just found the English translation of the Hebrew prayers the men were chanting,

      "Look at meeee.....Look at meeeee.....Loooook aaaaaat meeeeeee..."

      March 28, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  10. Sugga

    If those people were Muslims.... They wouldnt get an apologize from no one.. They would have been integrated in jail behind bars! Thats what is sad.

    March 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Boom

      As well they should! After what they did to us I hope every one of them is questioned forever.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Chaz

      Boom.......you are just another of the Sheeple.

      March 27, 2011 at 2:08 am |
    • I'm a Misotheist


      Only pathetic wannabe hipsters say sheeple. Do you wear skinny jeans and have an unread manifesto on your blog too?

      Oops, now I'm doing it too, making snap judgments about someone I don't know based on a one sentence post. There are lots of nice people who happen to be Muslim. It is sad that many who have never met a Muslim can't understand that all Muslims aren't their enemies. However, 90% of airline terrorism is conducted by radical Muslims.

      Is it possible to admit that fact without being a half-person half-sheep sub-human?

      March 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  11. highfive

    This is not the first time Orthodox Jews have caused a commotion on an airplane using teflillin and or phylacteries – and will not be the last. It's refreshing to hear from other Jews that the tefillin and associated devices should be kept stored until a more appropriate time to pray. There use to be a time when various religious groups would try to approach you to pitch their religious views in airports (see Airplane – the movie – lol). In an airport you could just ignore them and keep walking, in an airplane there is no where to run :P. For not following a flight attendants instructions alone should have been grounds for booting them from plane. What if they hit turbulence in-flight while these knuckle-heads were doing their thing un-restrained? If they got injured think they might sue... you tell me... FYI – there are airlines in the Middle-East that do make accommodations for passengers to pray to Mecca in-flight. Alaska Airlines isn't El-Al (Israeli airline), or Saudi Arabian Airline. Though these fellows might know their Torah, but they could use a little dose of common sense. I want to add I really don't care what religion you are (even if you worship a flying plate of spaghetti – as some do) but if your gonna pray on a flight 1. Keep your mouth shut, or at least keep it down 2. Follow all instructions from your flight attendants & pilots 3. Keep your hardware in the box. If you ask the American general public about this issue I'm sure the vast majority of people would agree with my sentiments. Someone made the comparison to crying babies, ummm... big difference. Babies & young children aren't blessed with much self-control as an adult Jew SHOULD have.

    March 24, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Deneen

      About 6 months after 9/11 I went to England and there were 5 Muslims on the flight-
      They changed seats often and just before landing one of them whipped out his beads to pray like mad.
      His fingers were going so fast-

      Not one Person had a problem with any of this-Even the seat changes.

      I think it is silly for anyone to protest anothers right to pray. I do agree with keeping it down, but if there is something they need to use to do, then deal with it or as you say, the airline should find a way to accomodate people-
      what if they need to pray for a safe landing?
      i personally do not mind the extra help-

      March 28, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • I'm a Misotheist

      Deneen, you once took a flight with disruptive muslims and it was no problem?! Well then, end of discussion, eh?

      There was a situation about a year or more after 9/11 when if memory serves a Lebanese band was taking a domestic flight between gigs in the US. They had no idea how to fly. They clustered together, wouldn't stay in their seats, and went to the bathroom 2 or 3 at a time while others waited. They kept walking the aisles and wouldn't listen to the stewardesses. A journalist and her husband were on board and they were terrified. When the plane landed they hauled all the people to be interviewed, and then put the band on a solo flight straight back home. My wife is from the ME and she laughed when I told her. She said they were probably just very nervous because of how people were looking at them and that they had no idea of the proper way to behave. It turned out she was correct, they were just musicians. But the idea that after 9/11 that kind of behavior doesn't get a reaction?

      Well, not as long as there's a single American on board will there be another uncontested hijacking of a plane. Never again. We all understand now that we'll have to go down fighting. So no excuses or sensitivity for this behavior, unless you'd like to be beat down and restrained by your fellow passengers for the rest of your flight.

      March 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  12. emenot

    I know this may attract ridicule from many religous public, but religion have no place in public as this is the cause of most WARS! When Freedom of Religion and Speech infringe or disturb others' whether its religion or peace it should be disallowed! What about the right to peace and quite of the public, its only common courtesy?

    March 24, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • Deneen

      what kind of thought process do you have?
      Once you take away some elses freedom then there isn't any at all!!
      You sound like, and I cannot believe I am saying it, but it fits-
      You sound like Nazi Propaganda.
      They took away the rights of ALL religions to practice & created their own religion based on the occult & Rome
      with Hitler as their 'god'.
      After the French surrendered & the soldiers were sent to prison camps-
      they weren't allowed to pray at all and were killed for it if they did pray.
      that's the kind of world you want?
      to deny others their right to happiness just so YOU can have public peace for YOU & other athiests?
      How is THAT fair or right?

      March 28, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • I'm a Misotheist


      Get a grip.

      March 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  13. tonny

    why all of you are worry yourself , America are the slave of Jews while Jews are anti Christ .if you look at prophecy in the bible well you will know that America is an instrument of anti Christ . anything Jews did whether good or bad America must support it .

    March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • from religion to reason

      One group's invisible friend is no more real than another's.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  14. Dev

    The 3 men should NOT have prayed on board the flight.
    It was irresponsible and if it was another religion doing the exact same act on board that flight, it would have been a different story. Regardless of ANY religion, all passengers should obey the rules of the flight and have the other passengers interest and safety in mind.
    These 3 men got off with an apology from the airline. It was another religion, i doubt that would have happened.

    March 22, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  15. ladrikius

    Those 3 guys should have been hassled. what if I want to disregard instructions and instead decide to stand up and sing sve ral old BILLY jOEL SONGS?

    March 21, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • Reeha

      Airlines cannot forbid passengers from praying. Airlines should teach their staff about Teffilin. I am not Jewish. A similar incident happened last year with a teenage boy who did the same. I feel very good and safe when I see the Jewish religious rituals being practiced.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:46 am |
    • I'm a Misotheist

      Reeha, airlines can't forbid you from praying or practicing religious beliefs unless those beliefs require you to be a loud uncooperative disturbance. It's a plane, not a public square. Not too long ago some nice religious young men practiced their beliefs with box cutters. If you think anyone is going to tolerate loud disruptive praying in the name of sensitivity you are fooling yourself. It will be a problem every time. As it should be. If your religion tells you that your prayers on a plane have to be such that they disturb others, then TAKE A F-IN BUS!

      March 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  16. Nieves

    There is a time and place for everything. Airline should have not apologized, the three stoodges should have. They have NO special privileges just for being who they are. All other passengers have the RIGHT to a quiet and peaceful flight. Want to pray? Go to church.

    March 21, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  17. jay

    It was irresponsible fo the Jewish guys to do these things during the Flight. Just because you purchased a ticket doesn't give you the right to do what you want. Freedom of anything doesn't apply when the safety of others are concerned. If the Jewish guys saw there was a concern from others perhaps they could have. A.) stopped B.) took the time to explain what they were doing. Totally irresponsible behaviour and arrogance to perform such a ritual and freak out others who are ignorant of it knowingly at that.

    March 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Jay G

      Sounds like these guys were just tring to flaunt their religion and spit in the face of anybody who might dare question them. Should've thrown them in jail for disrupting the flight and the last thing Alaska Airlines should've had to do is apologize.

      March 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • hehe101

      clearly you are not Jewish. I am quite sure that if they were the wearing the black hats and had those funky little locks so associated by the modern world with Jews no one would have gotten worried. These men were just doing as told in the Talmud (someone correct me if it is in the mishna or torah or one of the other books), they should have told the crew what they were doing in clear terms, as in "oh, these boxes contain sacred prayers, the wires you see are used to strap them to my body. They do not explode"

      March 23, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Abby

      There are designated times of day when prayers are to be recited, and doing so beforehand or waiting until after their flight may not have been an option. There was nothing wrong with what they did, except they should have said something beforehand. I actually don't think its the airlines job to provide sensitivity training about all world religions.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  18. Muneef

    By reading the explanations of the 99 names of God (Allah) you would know who you are dealing with and how to understand him clearly.

    99 Names of Allah

    It is not possible to perfectly translate the 99 names of Allah from their original Arabic into English. However, here are some fairly close explanations.

    "He is Allah (God), the Creator, the Originator, The Fashioner, to Him belong the most beautiful names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, do declare His praises and Glory. And He is the Exalted in Might, The Wise. (Quran 59:24)

    "The most beautiful names belong to Allah (God): so call on Him by them;..." (Quran 7:180)

    March 19, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • I'm a Misotheist

      Everyone knows that the One True Name of God is The Flying Spaghetti Monster!

      Whew, now that you know this you can avoid Hell. Hell is a place where there are NO MEATBALLS!....(shivers)

      March 28, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  19. Muneef


    March 19, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  20. Muneef

    Well can say at least the plane might have reached and completed it's flight safely with out having any accidents just because of the prayers of those passengers...after all they were praying to the God of all (Allah Almighty). So suggest all believers should pray during voyage but with less excitement as to not disturb other passengers or their children...

    March 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • emenot

      Are you stupid, they are disturbing the rest of the passengers and had created confusion isn't that cause for them to restrain? Why don't they pick a flight before or after they prayed? This is very selfish and self serving, I don't think their God approve of this!

      March 24, 2011 at 12:09 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.