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. jeanne

    Hey, thats bs.. travel in between prayer time....i would have tackled them...they SHOULD NOT be allowed to do that IN FLIGHT.....and the next attack will be radicals posing as these people....GET REAL PEOPLE WE NEED TO TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK.....this is ridiculous....no wonder theres hate......one group is allowed because they cry relegion and the others are jailed.....what a joke...NO ONE

    March 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      "Our" country? Who is this "our?" I believe these were American Orthodox Jews.

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

      Take our country back? What does that mean? Stop religious freedom? It's insensitive, intolerant people like you we need to take our country back from. You are why people hate us. Get educated and learn other cultures, and think twice about posting hateful comments.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • monica

      Jeanne means take back our country from those who can't use common sense!! She didn't express hate, she expressed an opinion about the appropriateness of religious rituals on an AIRPLANE. How is that hateful?? Or is it that we're not allowed to express an opinion that's not worshipping religion.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  2. JS

    I'm Jewish- but these whackos don't need to be praying in their weird ways during a flight. Save it for the rubber room after you land- morons!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  3. R A Williams

    So there are separate standards for the religious, such that they can ignore seatbelt instructions or the directives of the flight crew without being fined or arrested the way the rest of us would be. That doesn't surprise me, this is America after all, where all manner of nonsense or public disturbance is acceptable provided it's labeled "religion".

    We really elevate "religious" people and accord them a special status because their faith is a burden to them although it somehow benefits us to have them around being holy. Prayer can be as intrusive and obnoxious as the religious person likes: when it's done in public or even in the home of a non-religious person, everyone else is socially obligated to stop and render homage to the person doing the praying. Sometimes it seems to me that the person praying in public gets off on the attention and the respect. Public prayer is basically an attention seeking behavior that rewards the religious person twice: once with attention and prestige from other human beings in this lifetime, and apparently a second reward awaits in the afterlife. Private prayer, which can provide only the second reward at best, appears to be less favored.

    If I were their god (and it's probably just as well that I'm not because I'd be heavily into smiting), I'd say that people who pray obnoxiously in public have already gotten what they really want, which is attention from their peers. In fact, if they did the public praying at the expense of regular contact with a divine yours truly, it would be pretty clear whose favor and attention they really prefer, so I'd deliberately screw them over in the afterlife. Then, they could see how well their peers could provide for them. On what side do they think their bread is buttered?

    On a more practical note, will I be penalized or interfered with if I sacrifice a live goat in honor of Baphomet during my next flight? I mean, if it could be done solely with tools that can be brought through a TSA body scanner. We can roast the goat afterwards and enjoy something a lot more palatable than standard airline fare.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • monica

      Amen brother!!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  4. steveo

    אתה כל טיפש

    March 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Matthew

      שלושת הנוסעים הם טיפשים.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  5. Ben

    Sentence as follows:
    One night in jail for being nothing more than IDIOTS.
    Banned from Air travel FOREVER.
    Fined the equivalent of 1/3 EACH of what it cost the airline to operate that particular flight.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  6. DMarch

    Judging by the huge number of stupid, poorly spelled and uninformed comments here, I can safely assume most of you have not been exposed to any of the more religious sects of Judaism. What happened on the plane was nothing different than what I saw growing up in Brooklyn next to the Boro Park neighborhood. It would do some of you a great deal of good to crack open a book and read occasionally, you sound ethnocentric and half literate.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • John Brown

      And you sound condescending and arrogant. Should we all make it our business to be familiar with every possible obscure religious ritual to satisy the likes of you? If you want to talk your man in the sky, that's fine by me, but I dislike being painted as somehow ignorant if I choose not to waste my time learning about something in which I have no belief, and I have no need of you and your percieved superiority derived from the accident of your having been raised where you were.

      Basic common sense will tell you that if you do anything out of the ordinary on a plane, and this was out of the ordinary for those of us who grew up most anywhere else, you may expect to be scrutinized. The rest of us have had to adapt, these gentlemen are no different.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  7. Kelly

    Hmmmm!!! Maybe, just maybe, it was a test to see what the airlines would do? Perhaps they were actually a "test" group to see how the airline etc...would respond, a "dry run" if you will, and based on that, the next time this happens people/airline officials/staff etc...will just "let it go" as not to "step on toes"....and BANG!...they turn out to be terrorists after all? I'm just saying!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Chris R

      What you are 'just saying' is woefully ignorant. I've seen this happen on multiple flights – especially early morning flights as that's when these prayers usually have to be said. If this is a 'dry run' they've been doing dry runs for the past 25 years.

      Also, if you've seen the size of these 'boxes' you'd understand how idiotic this whole thing is. They're about the size of two matchboxes – if that.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  8. Matthew

    I'm really not sure what Alaska Airlines needs to apologize for. Three passengers on one of its flights began engaging in behavior that is certainly, without doubt, not the norm for air travelers. Because of their strange and unexpected behavior, they received extra scrutiny from airline staff and safety officials. Is this not exactly what vigilance and heightened attention are for? The passengers, once it was determined that their strange behavior was no threat to anyone, were sent on their way without incident. To me, this seems like a textbook example of how airline procedures should function properly.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  9. Jeff

    The only ones who should be apologizing are the religious morons who insist on wrapping leather ropes around their hands and paying with a box on their head. If you want to do that, fine. However, you do it on your time and not on public transportation. I’m quite certain God will understand your prayer being either before or after your flight, you wing nut.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  10. ugh

    Americans have turned into cowards. This disgusts me.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Jeff S

      Me too. I ashamed that instead of beacon of freedom this country has become more concerned with individual safety. I think as a nation we have lost sight of the ideals this country was founded on.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  11. Pericles

    Alaska airlines has nothing to apologize for. The three men who began praying should be apologizing for causing such a stir. We all need to start being responsible for our own actions and how they impact those around us – what a novel idea.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  12. sir_ken_g

    I have seen this before actually – but it was on a flight out of New York and folks knew what it was.
    What would have happened if this has been Muslim prayer? The same? Or would they have been strip searched and jailed?

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

      Even if people knew what it was it's just as dangerous for someone to be up and about when the fasten seatbelt sign is on ... in sudden severe turbulence if one of them goes flying and injures or kills another passenger, is it OK because that person become a martyr to the Jewish faith?? No thank you...

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

      Had it been Muslims praying, they would have strip searched the 7 year old boy two aisles up and arrested the 60 year old grey headed lady in coach.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  13. hodel

    What the heck is the airline having to be sorry about? Everyone should know after 9-11 that you don't do anything unusual on an airplane or in an airport. This really makes me mad. If I had been on that plane, I would have wanted the individuals handcuffed. How many weird religious rituals do we all need to know? Alaska Airlines did nothing wrong (except appologizing). I am 49 and have never heard of this religious ceremony. Bunch of cr-p if you ask me.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Jeff S

      Really? You are willing to strip people of freedom so you feel safer? Why not stop with preventing people to exercise their right to freedom of religion. Lets just start segregating people based on skin color and creed on the planes.

      At what point to we realize we are not providing safety, we are destroying the foundation this country is built on?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  14. Tammy

    So, these men could not stop for two seconds to speak to the flight attendants and explain what they were doing? Also, two went to the lavatory and one in the aisle. I would be concerned as well. We do not live in a world without hatred. It is Satans world, and as such, we are in danger. So now what, our flight attendants are not to question anyone "strapping" things to themselves and refusing to explain their actions? Let's just put up a HUGE RED FLAG that says terrorists, we accept you and we will not question your activity! Please come and kill us! This could have been explained by the the men that it was their time to pray. Clearly, the flight attendants are not the only one's at fault here.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  15. brian

    These sort of religious practices have no place on air planes.Giving rights to them can only encourage terrorists to disguise theselves as religious persons and create a disaster. The airline was right to put the sakety of its passengers first and shouild not have to apologized .

    March 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  16. monica

    If your religious needs prevent you from following the safety rules of flying on an airplane, then you shouldn't fly. It's unsafe for everyone else on board for other passengers to get stuff out of the overhead bin when the pilot has the seat belt sign on. And what if terrorists decide to dress like orthodox jews now and mimic this ritual – Grabbing boxes and stuff out of the bins when everyone else is required to be restrained in their seats? Disregarding directions etc. I'm not religious but I'm pretty sure God expects us to use our brains for common sense.

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

      Monica: you wrote "I'm pretty sure God expects us to use our brains for common sense."

      Since when have organized religions promoted the use of brains? Over the millenia they have promoted nothing but blind obedience, frequently subjecting anyone actually using their brains to severe penalties, torture, and death.

      If you're using your brains, you usually figure out that whatever god you were told to worship is just as non-existent as all the other gods that mankind has created over time...

      March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  17. Love Islam

    Joshua Lund

    March 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  18. BeckSucks

    I can't believe some people are upset that the airlines did this. I don't study religion and therefor do not know how every religion operates. These three men should have alerted the crew and airlines before they ever took their seats. Plain and simple. I don't care what religion but if you are going to ignore crew instructions, have black boxes strapped to you, and pray aloud, you better be ready to except what happens, especially considering 9/11. The airline did what I hope every airline would do. Just watch, terrorists will next board an Alaskan Airline and blew it up and it will be because they were trying to be more tolerate.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Jeff S

      Are you saying we should get rid of Freedom of Religion because of 9/11?

      Why is everyone so scared of terrorists? Why is everyone so willing to throw out the freedoms we have fought, bled, and died for?

      You do realize we have allowed the terrorists to win by limiting freedoms by telling people when and where they can pray right?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  19. Matt R

    ***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.***

    Um how about instead of "sensitizing" airline crews you guys don't engage in this crap until after the plan lands. Sheesh, it's only a few hours.

    March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Chris R

      Maybe it doesn't matter to modern Christians but it matters a lot to orthodox jews. Certain prayers must be said at a certain time. There are very few exceptions and being on an airplane is not one of those exceptional periods.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      How about scheduling flights so they don't interfere with the prayers?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Adam

      So let's have all the airlines staff become religious scholars on what is "normal" ritual. There are hundreds of religions and sects out there! Which ones do you feel the airlines should address? Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Scientology, Catholics, Latter Day Saints, Atheism, etc.? Do you get the picture? Additionally, what if you allow some people to have and play with some special gadgets or prayers tools at 30K feet? Do you think the terrorist wouldn’t notice that and copycat the innocent travelers? Travelers should demonstrate some common sense.

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

      I understand and support these individuals religious freedom; however, I do think that a brief comment or explanation on their part (prior to or during the event) could have eliminated this misunderstanding while encouraging education and acceptance. As Ms. Lauter noted, both parties have responsiblity. While I don't know if an airlines could be expected to know all of the potential religious traditions that travel, they should be open to hearing from their passengers. The passengers also have a responsilbity to appropriately communicate with them any unexpected events.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • ieat

      oh great. then you'll have christians, jews, muslims, buddhists etc all chanting out loud in an airplane while the kids start crying all together. Wonderful....

      March 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  20. Kim

    If I were those praying, I would have shown discretion and not done it out loud and full view when taking off in a plane. The alert level was at it's highest when I flew Thursday, so I am guessing it is still high and I would have not scared others by doing any allah akbars or other prayers or rituals during take off or flight. Have some common sense!

    March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Chris R

      Kim, the majority of orthodox prayers must be said out loud. There are some exception but these particular prayers cannot be said silently. I personally don't think anyone should dumb down what they are doing to meet the ignorance of those around them.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Jeff S

      I love it. There goes freedom of religion too.

      At one point do we as a nation realize we have allowed the terrorists to win? To me its pretty obvious. The terrorists set out to disrupt our way of life...to scare us into no longer living the life we as American believe is a right of all people regardless of religion, race, or creed.

      Americans treated as potential terrorists for simply buying a ticket to ride on a plane, now we are treated as potential terrorists because we pray. Seriously people. Do you not see the ideals that founded this nation being trampled because of fear?

      Our founding fathers knew they faced the hangman's noose if we didn't secure our freedom from England and yet they pushed for it anyway. These days it seems the only people we are willing to risk for the cause of freedom is those that enlist. Freedom is bigger than you, its bigger than me.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:12 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.