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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. Sparky

    I am all for prayer, and people should be talk\pray when even we wish to?

    These 3 guys pushed the line to far! No question about that!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  2. SlapStick

    They knew damn well this would stir up some scat. Keep your rituals at home or in your place of worship, that is why those structures are built in the first place. I couldn't careless what folks believe in...PRIVATELY!!!!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  3. Margroks

    I have to agree that anything of this sort whcih would eb disruptive should be held to a minimum, including prayer rituals. What is the point of doing this on a plane? Couldn't you do it in private, perhaps, or explain what you want to do to others first?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Sure, but before you go putting up that light-polluting x-mas tree, make sure you go to all of your neighbors and explain what you are doing, so they don't call the police, thinking your house is on fire, or being robbed or something.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • SlapStick

      Fred, you want to see real hate and intolerance? You should move to the middle east and put up a Christmas tree and report back to all of us how that turns out for you.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  4. Richxx

    I see know reason the airline should apologize. They should pray quietly to their god. Who were they trying to impress? god or the other passengers. What idiots.

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

      You just do not get it... thier religion says they need to pray out loud. You trying to squash thier beliefs is just ignorant and vain. Why should your way be consdiered the right way. To each their own... people are too sensitive about what other people are doing.

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

      Hey Hannah...people also pray out loud just before a large explosion. I am not defending the intolerant, I am just saying ALL people need to exercise some common sense and you could argue that what they did is pretty darn offensive to others around them. The door swings both ways. Hate and intolerance would be greatly diminished if people didn't supply the ammo by thinking the entire world is their place of worship.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  5. Hannah

    I am always shocked by the level of bigotry and intolerance still in the world today. These comments are nothing my parents or the society I grew up in prepared me for. This hate that is spewed is disgusting.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  6. AD

    I dont want to be bothered by anyone's chanting any more than I want to hear a screaming baby. I dont care about your prayers just as much as you dont care about hearing about my grandmother. Just shut your mouth, close your eyes, and pray in your head. Your god should punish you for being an obnoxious ass to other humans trying to fly from point a to point b.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  7. Beadles

    BOTH sides are to blame, but I'm thinking even more so on the side of the travelers. In today's world, all of us need to be especially aware of how our actions could be misconstrued. Many people have never seen Orthodox Jews. I'd never seen any until I traveled to NYC in the 1980s when I was over 30 years old. The travelers should have informed the flight crew of their intent. AND, they should have OBEYED the flight crew. Sorry, guys, I'm all for freedom of religion (even tho' not religious myself) but the onus is on YOU to not intrude on the rights & safety of others. And, while the flight crew might have been a bit more aware of what was actually going on – who says they couldn't have been terrorists in disguise? Apparently, the three travelers were cooperative when the plane landed – that almost wipes out any shortcomings from their earlier "lapses."

    March 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • ABM

      I agree. I'm Jewish, and I'd never seen Orthodox Jews like this until a few years ago. They are a rare breed, and it is asking a lot to make everyone aware of them. They need to give a little here, too - alert the crew, tell passengers around them what they're doing, etc. etc. Tolerance goes both ways - but I find that the Orthodox don't often tolerate anyone who isn't Orthodox - not exactly into the whole outreach thing. And criticizing them is *not* anti-semitic...at the end of the article, the ADL's Deborah Lauter admitted that some of the blame was on these three guys.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  8. JGoggles

    If these guys were Muslim...they'd be on a separate plane to Guantanamo.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  9. George

    The have to apologize because if the don't. The pilot, flight attendant and the state of Alaska will be branded as anti-semitic

    March 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  10. Alaskaflyer

    It seems kind of ironic that an airline that used to (not sure if they still do) leave religious tracts on your meal tray is excited by people praying. Having said that, with all the winguts un this world, three guys starting to pray out loud on a plane in this day and age would freak me out too.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  11. Angel

    Am all for prayer, but not in this kind of manner. God does hear even our whispers. This was clearly alarming. if i was in it i would probably have been thinking its an attack in progress.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  12. JSK in NYC

    Why are they sorry? They were following the procedure for what may have been a security concern. They don't apologize for treating anyone else like crap, or their unbelievably rude airport workers, or the groping at the security gates. People would be suing them if they didn't act, and just did nothing. Not everyone is familiar with every aspect of every religion- there is bound to be some questioning of a situation like that.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  13. Greenspam

    If 3 Mexicans were to do this in Arizona, they would be asked for their paper and be expelled from this country.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  14. tp

    ENOUGH OF BEING EXPECTED TO BE 'TOLERANT'... THESE GUYS WERE IRRESPONSIBLE AND INCONSIDERATE IN DOING THIS IN A PUBLIC SPACE, MUCH LESS AN AIRPLANE. HAVING MADE NO PREPARATIONS TO DISCUSS IT PRIOR WITH THE STAFF, THEY SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE AND JAILED. ENOUGH OF THIS MID-EAST &^%$.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      That's the 'tolerant and inclusive' America I've discovered to be far more common than our (apparently) idealistic forefathers had hoped....

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

      I think you should be jailed for your misuse of the caps lock key.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  15. Sara

    THEY SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ALLOWED TO PRAY OUT LOUD!! I DON'T CARE WHAT RELIGION YOU ARE, YOUR RIGHTS STOP AT THE TIP OF YOUR NOSE AS DO MINE. THE AIRLINE DOESN'T NEED TO APOLOGIZE FOR ANYTHING. THESE GUYS SHOULD HAVE BEEN KICKED OFF THE FLIGHT FOR DISRUPTING THE PEACE!!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  16. P

    Ummmm.......I believe there is at least two punishable offense here.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  17. T3chsupport

    Why are they being treated differently than Muslims?

    I mean, come on... some guys who are dressed kind of weird, praying in some language that most people have no exposure to, with weird little black boxes strapped to them, and not listening to the staff, and not explaining themselves. Sounds a little scary, no?

    What is it that makes Jews more special than anyone else? Oh, because you're apparently a monster if you call them out on any of their crap.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • JimS.

      It doesn't sound like they *were* treated any differently than Muslims. Their actions were just as unsettling and the crew responded exactly the same way. This was very stupid behavior on the part of these 3 men. Even though they knew what they were doing was harmless, they had to know it would make people very nervous, but they did it anyway.

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

      What is is that makes you think you can lump all Jews together? I'm Jewish, but I would never do this. Don't lump me in with them. And what makes us special is that we have to constantly deal with ignorant people like you, always complaining about "you Jews"...seriously, go take a tolerance course or something. I'm not justifying what these schmucks did - but you are far worse by lumping all Jews together with your bigoted comment.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • ABM

      What is it that makes you think you can lump all Jews together? I'm Jewish, but I would never do this. Don't lump me in with them. And what makes us special is that we have to constantly deal with ignorant people like you, always complaining about "you Jews"...seriously, go take a tolerance course or something. I'm not justifying what these schmucks did - but you are far worse by lumping all Jews together with your bigoted comment.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  18. Buddha

    How about we just make it a rule that theres no praying out loud on a plane. Just saying, if people start talking to God on a plane it usually means something bad is happening.

    Not saying you can't mutter a prayer under your breath but when you start praying to a point where the whole plan decides there could be a problem its better to just ban prayer all together while in flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  19. KenRyder

    Lighthouses have saved more people then these "gods" you worship.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • dhondi

      How would you know?

      March 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  20. Do as I say Not as I do...

    I just saw a picture of what a teflillin looks like.... They are lucky they were not shot by and airmarshal or slammed by the passengers and crew pulled those little black boxes out of the carry-on bin. How the hell did they get past TSA with those things? This is sounding more and more like a stunt by some punks rather than the religious observence of Lent.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Umm....do Jews observe Lent??!

      March 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Dave C

      Lent? Are you kidding? You do know they are Jews, right? They use the Tefillin to pray every single day except Saturday.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • JimS.

      Clueless, much? Orthodox Jews don't observe Lent.

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

      Hey Genius, Orthodox Jews do not observe Lent.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • J

      Poor decision making, plain and simple. Your God tells you to disrupt a flight? Could you imagine if everyone on the flight were up in the aisles, praying, going to the bathroom together. What if something as simple as turbulence hit? You'd have at least a few with concussions.

      Don't worry, your God won't care if you wait until you disembark to pray.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • ABM

      Are you kidding? A stunt? Wow, wear your ignorance on your sleeve why don't you.

      March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Blastphemy

      Jews don't observe Lent. Not everyone in the world believes in Jesus, y'know! Just because you're unfamiliar with the most basic Jewish rituals doesn't mean the passengers weren't kids "punking" the airline! Observant Jews wear tefillin every single day except for Saturday, so it's like you wearing shoes. Only ignorant Christians who don't realize there are other beliefs out there and therefore make no attempt at broadening your mind ever have problems with stuff like this.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • ClaudeJo

      And this has what exactly to do with Lent? Not exactly worldly, are you?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • davethecanuck

      Agreed, if it really happened the way the flight attendants statement said it did, these men seemed to go out of their way to frighten the passengers and crew. Definately a stunt... I'm guessing to draw attention to their poor selves being discriminated against. They only apology issued should have been by these men for their insensitivites to the concerns of the other air travellers. The only explaination for them not understanding how what they were doing would concern the other passengers.... is willful ignorance.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Floyd

      @Blastphemy – his comments on Lent are as ignorant of Christian faith as much as Jewish faith but it is clear where you stand now, bigot.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • Eric

      How did they get tefillin past the TSA? My guess would be that the TSA screener x-rayed them, possibly swabbed them for chemical traces, and found them to be harmless. Orthodox Jews pray 3 times a day, Muslims pray 5. My great-grandparents came to this country fleeing religious persecution. That hatred and ignorance is rearing its ugly head again.

      Ignore your rights and they'll go away.

      April 4, 2011 at 5:20 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.