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. omgolly

    Okay, I understand paranoia and I understand the need to pray but SERIOUSLY, if you can't tell tefellin from a bomb, perhaps you need to step out of your white bread narrow minded jerry springer world and take a look around. Also to the Yeshiva Boys: a simple: "we're going to pray now" to the cabin attendant would have diffused most of this.

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

      Gee, can you really identify every type of known explosive from every type of known non-explosive substance? These people acted strangely on an airplane. They got what they desrved and the airline did nothing wrong.

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

      If we "can't tell teflillin from a bomb?" Are you serious? Before reading this article, I had no idea what teflillin is or looks like, and neither do I have any idea at all what your average airplane bomb looks like. I do, however, know peculiar behavior when I see it, and even the most bleeding-heart individual should be able to admit that strapping objects to yourself and praying aloud right after take-off certainly qualifies as out-of-the-ordinary behavior. The flight crew reacted with professionalism and complete justification. When the plane landed and the men were determined to be no threat to anyone, they were calmly allowed to go on their way without incident. Seems like a textbook example of following appropriate procedures in the case of odd passenger behavior to me.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm |

      It just is not appropriate to do anything out of the ordinary on an airplane these days. God will hear the prayer...he has ESP.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Audrey

      @omgolly – This comment is awesome. Thank you.

      @Matthew – "Before reading this article, I had no idea what teflillin is or looks like" – You should seriously pick up a beginner's book about Judaism, then. Educate yourself on other people's cultures before the fact and incidents like this can be avoided. The men did nothing wrong and they aren't responsible for the flight attendant's (or your) ignorance.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  2. Chris

    I think the airline did the right thing by alerting authorities. Praying out loud with things strapped to you in this day and age on a plane is dumb.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • tim620

      It's not dumb, it is cultural. You evidently have no respect for the culture of other people.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Matthew

      @tim620 –

      What about them having respect for the dominant culture, which certainly does not include arcane religious rites carried out during public air travel? Nobody has suggested that people should not be allowed to pray at all. However, even the biggest bleeding-heart must be able to admit that praying aloud on a plane shortly after takeoff while strapping objects to yourself is certainly peculiar and out-of-the-ordinary behavior, deserving of extra scrutiny. Having "respect for other cultures" does not and never has meant that people must excuse any all all behavior at any time at any location in the name of "cultural sensitivity."

      March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Ficheye

      No Tim... it's DUMB. Pray to your god but do it silently. And don't stand up for 'their rights' here. I, and a million other people, don't want to hear people like this praying on the plane. They could have done it before they left home. Forget about the 'culture' argument. It holds no water in this case.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  3. James

    We need to hear BOTH sides of the story before assuming the article's facts are exactly how it happened. Don't y'all be so quick to judge!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  4. Logan

    So, does this mean that when I am waiting aboard a plane in the US, that whenever I hear someone speaking spanish, I can call the police a report a bomb threat?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  5. Louis Fried

    Brian- An ignorant comment by an ignorant person.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  6. Ren

    Next time I fly I'll bring a live chicken and slaughter it with my bare hands (no knives!!), and perform a religious ritualistic blessing of the craft in the name of Yemanja, godess of the seas. Will that be acceptable if I inform everybody beforehand?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  7. randaxe

    kalimaaaaa, kalimaaaaaaaaaa, kalimaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

    March 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Try it ........

      March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  8. Dr. Greg

    Swell, now Alaska Airlines is going to be the floating Mosque in the sky. I wonder if they will be pointing the aircraft towards Mecca at prayer time?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • tim620

      What do mosques have to do with Orthodox Jews??

      March 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Roger Cannon

      Dear Dr Gregg: You should get out more often.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  9. Fl

    Are you kidding me? Apologize for what? Have some common sense and courtesy for others. I pray on a plane too, quietly and without putting WIRES on myself. That's not a religious right, what is anyone supposed to think on a plane.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  10. Doug

    I'm proud to be Jewish. Those guys should be allowed to pray with their tefillin just like other people use their blackboxes (ipads, ipods, laptops). HOWEVER, they also need to follow the rules just like everyone else. They shouldn't be going to the bathroom together while someone stands watch (weird) and ignore flight announcements. They need to be practical and Alaska Airlines should be open to diversity but in this particular case, I think those guys were wrong.

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

      They could have waited. Plain and simple. It was ridiculous to do that on a aircraft. No respect for others at all.

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

      Doug, thank you.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  11. Joshua Ludd

    "The men were questioned, their bags searched, and it was determined they were not a threat according to the FBI."

    Face it. what they really mean is that it was determined they were not muslims.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm |

    Forgive me, but was it no an exactly similar situation some time back that had those Muslims removed from the plane because of a very similar act. Group praying on-board of a plane? So Muslims were removed, Jews were not, Muslims weren't apologized for, Jews were? I am just seeking fairness and similar treatment, is that right or wrong? FYI ,I am a Muslim man, but I agree, even us Muslims we can pray in silent, read our Holy Book quietly, so at that the time I did agree with American authorities and TSA for how they acted. Safety first for everyone on-board regardless. Public group praying should only be reserved to Mosques, Synagogues, Churches or Temples. But bottom-line, we should be fair and just in our treatment of people from different faiths. Thank you.

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

      Every Muslim person should be questioned and investigated every time they get on a plane. Period.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  13. John Roberson

    What the frig.. Who the hell prays loudly on a plane.. Stay home freaks.. Or move to the motherland

    March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Audrey

      Or you could move back to your ancestors' motherland...? If American freedom of worship bothers you so much, that is.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  14. Tina

    They had odd behvior to begin with and could not heed the direction of the flight attendant. They needed to be escorted of the plane for that alone. In this day and age, with the threat of terrorism, if you can't behave or listen to the attendants, then don't fly. Take a car. And as for the praying. Seriously clear it first. Let people know what you plan on doing. Praying in a different language, after bizarre behavior??? If I had been on that flight, I would have been panic stricten.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • BC

      You've bought in to all the paranoia. The VERY LAST THING a terrorist wants to do is draw attention to himself.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Audrey

      Ah Hebrew, the most terrifying and strange of languages. That's why they translated the Scriptures into English dontchaknow.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  15. Tard

    I agree, the airline did nothing wrong.
    The guys strapping boxes to their bodies and loudly praying?
    Pretty clear they are either stunningly clueless OR most likely trolls trying to get attention.
    If I were on that plane, I'd be demanding some action, Stat.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • John - Altanta

      The ariline could have asked what they where doing. Just because some ignorant hicks from Alaska did not know any better does not make them crimminals. Unless we want to outlaw prayer in public, they did nothing wrong at all.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Matthew

      @John – Atlanta

      Nobody is saying the Jewish men did anything *wrong*. All indications are, however, that what they did was extremely *peculiar* and showed a lack of forethought concerning their behavior in a public location. If the 3 passengers did nothing wrong by engaging in out-of-the-ordinary behavior on a plane shortly after takeoff, then the flight crew *certainly* did nothing wrong in giving the three passengers extra scrutiny.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Saint

      @John – Atlanta

      This has nothing to do with prayer in public. Where do people get off thinking that everything is public space? This is a privately owned aircraft full of privately paying passengers.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Audrey

      @Saint – So what, should the airline have put up an old-fashioned "NEW JEWS ALLOWED" sign or something? Since it's private property, after all. (or else really, how should these have men known they couldn't PRAY on a plane? there are many airlines, for example any airline with flights in and out of Israel, that wouldn't find this behavior at all out of the ordinary. sounds like poor diversity training / ignorant staff to me!)

      March 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • I'm just saying

      This is not about being Jewish, this is about being ignorant. If the 3 men had any common sense they would have known what they were doing would cause concern. If I looked up, saw some men praying and then strapping something they got from an overhead compartment, I'd be concerned too. They could have been Orthodox, but they could have not been. Secondly, they were told to sit and didn't so I would be more concerned that 3 men who refused to follow the rules might do something else. Orthodox Jews are some of the most arrogant people out there. They believe what they believe and act accordingly, everyone else be damned, even other Jews. People screaming antisemitism, but if the same was done by Muslims you would have sued the airlines for lack of intervention. I'm just saying.

      March 31, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  16. Gene

    These 3 arrogant individuals should have been kicked off. Did they even consider that passengers wouldn't want to hear their religious rantings. When people travel, they want peace and quite. Plain and simple, this is just cultural and religious arrogance! There was no way an apology from the airline was necessary. Alaska Airlines was just whimpering and caving in to political correctness (and trying to avoid legal trouble).

    March 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • tim620

      You should listen to yourself (speaking of arrogance).

      March 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Michael Klein

      Of course people must be considerate of their fellow passengers, but they have the right the pray as long as they do so quietly. Religious freedom is one of our most precious American freedoms.

      March 15, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  17. malcolm in St louis

    what next, slaughter a goat?

    March 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      What about the Santarian passengers??

      March 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  18. Dave

    I admire the rich traditions of the men who were involved in this incident, but wonder how inconsiderate they could be of the concerns of their fellow passengers. Perhaps with such future lack of consideration, the stage will be set for a more regrettable event when an airline, not wanting to step on the toes of anyone, will miss the signals of a true emergency.

    Safety is a multi-faceted situation, and to act as though one lives in a vacuum in today's world, truly is the manifestation of 12th century thinking.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  19. fork E

    I believe that this is the same airline that had ABDULLAH THE BUTCHER removed from a flight for no good reason either. We'll see how they feel once he gets inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame next month.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  20. Brian

    Yup, the chosen ones. Preferred status. Can you imagine if that was just you or me Mr. Normal Joe?

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

      Yeah, Brian. I hear they actually run the world in association with the Illuminati. Google it. There's a website that proves it.

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

      If it were Christian prayer it wouldn't be much of a security concern. Idiot staff probably couldn't tell the difference between Hebrew and Arabic. They're both "flemy" in dialect and the garb may have been reminiscent to Islamic shah's the way an Indian Hindi gets mixed up with Arabic Islam in looks. And by that I again mean anyone who isn't a cultural troglodyte can easily tell the difference.

      tl;dr – Idiots who can't even unfairly racial profile the right ethnicities since they "all look the same".

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

      However the Jews in question were being inconsiderate without giving a heed to what they were doing. No warning, no explanation. Just an overall expectation that everyone on the plane had to put up with them. Still, they were only being a risk to themselves for refusing to follow seating instructions as far as I can tell: unless they were grabbing overhead luggage during turbulence: then it could have hurt someone else.

      But an overall security risk for what is essentially suspect terrorism? Of course not. It's just being rude, not a real flight risk. They posed no more security threat than a crying baby (but knowing our standards with no-fly lists that reasoning means nothing).

      March 15, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Brian

      Dan, they call themselves the chosen ones. You do some research....

      March 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Saint

      @ Bernard

      You don't have to pose a security threat to scare and annoy people. Babies crying is hard to temper. Full grown adults should know better.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Donalyn

      I usually pray on airplanes and no one has ever stopped me.

      March 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • I'm just saying

      There is no sensitivity training needed other than on the part of the Orthodox. Sit down means sit down, PERIOD. They broke the rules by standing and that was not addressed at all. Second off, their behavior was strange and given the current climate, anyone would be afraid. What makes them incapible of doing something wrong like anyone else???? Yeah, terrifin was in the boxes, but it could have just as easily been plastic explosives. I must say that this article really bothered me because no responsibility was put on the men and I have to question whether it was because they were Jewish...even though I know the answer. If I become a Rastafarian, can I pray and blaze up on the plane? I'm just saying.

      March 31, 2011 at 2:25 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.