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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. abigel

    How long before people will have the courage to tell jews when they are out of line? Why are we still pamerping them and make exceptions for them banding over backwards?

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

      I'm Jewish. I see nothing wrong with what the airlines did. These three men appeared not to be following the rules while the flight was airborne. There is no apology necessary- except from them to the airlines.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  2. GuestAdmin

    The approach should be balanced. in today's environment where safety is of concern, care should be taken not praying aloud or things like that. Flight attended, I think, correct thing by alerting the agencies if they were not sure about about prayers. If flight attendants knew they were just normal prayers, than in that case should have taken different approach. But still prayers if offered should be done that it's one private affair not public!
    A thought runs through the mind, what if muslim had recited the prayer loudly? Would he/she would have been released later, would airlines offered apology in that case?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  3. nelson

    how hard would it have been to tell the crew they intended to pray loud and in a group. The world does not revolve around you. you have to think look at what your doing and then look at the people around you. They were scared because they didn't know or understand. Had they told someone anyone they could have been seated together in another part of the plane and the flight attendants could have explained to passengers what was going on. Come on people think.

    Also I'm Jewish.. 😀

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

      of course you are!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  4. mecatfish

    sounds like a dry run to me.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  5. Mustafa

    Hmm ... Let us assume that the Three Amigos were Muslims .... Alaska Airlines would have apologized to the rest of the passengers.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  6. Alex

    I don't know – sounds like a test run to me. The rule should be if you want to travel, you have to obey what the flight attendants say. "please stay seated" is not an unreasonable request, especially when it's made with safety in mind.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • exactly

      I think this is beyond feasible... Think about how perfect it is. They can use a highly PC scenario where the airline would hesitate to intervene out of fear of being tagged "insensitive." Sounds paranoid, sounds about right.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  7. Airline Passenger

    If the crew asked you as an adult to be quiet on a plane, then stfu. I don't care if you were wearing panties under your coat with 5 strings with 5 jack-in-the-boxes. Quiet means quiet. This has nothing to do with color or religion. It has to do with nuisance of distraction unnecessary noise. God will hear you loud and clear if you think about your prayer.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  8. Sam

    Three fools. Anyone with even half a brain knows the world we live in now, and without a doubt knows behaviors while on an airplane must be different than usual. They were seeking something out of stunt. Sensitivity training? What a joke.

    Simply put, do what millions of other air passengers do every year.......leave the tape, wires and black boxes at home and pray before or after you get off the airplane.

    All of the politically correct, sensitivity garbage has gone too far and it's keeping people from having to make smart and reasonable choices.

    Stop crying, go to therapy and work on your self esteem.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • BrainHere

      Well put. There are places for everything, so pray before or after the flight if you have such bizarre praying practices. You may very well pray during the flight if you pray in silence, eyes closed in normal attire.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Isaac

      I am frightened by the fact that you or your ilk make up any portion of our society. You know nothing, and you never will.

      March 18, 2011 at 2:13 am |
  9. DRB

    When was the last time an Orthodox Jew blew himself up in a plane full of innocent civilians? Hmmm... All you people who are so quick to condemn these men are completely clueless and uneducated. Don't worry, you're like millions of other Americans, who have no real world education. There were no wires involved in their prayers, just items that are unknown to the racist, uneducated, scared American public. I was on a plane, sitting next to a Muslim man who began praying and bowing and speaking Arabic during a night flight once... I didn't go to pieces and alert the feds. Get over yourselves.

    If they had been Christians, there would've been no problem. Yet Christians are responsible for plenty of death and destruction in the name of god. Get off your racist butts and go out and learn something. Read a book form time to time, instead of watching the TV all the time.

    FYI, I'm a white, American... born and raised, so don't go there.

    Morons!

    Done.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • crabby

      yes – but are you a jew?.....

      March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Mark

      I think it was more along the lines of oh I don't know, they didn't do what they were told and when politely asked didn't explain what they were doing?

      I don't see anything racist in that.
      In fact, I'm surprised they got an apology.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Natalie

      If they had been Christian, they most likely would have been praying in English, which would have caused much less confusion. There are very few Orthodox Jews in the US; they had no reason to believe anyone would know what they were doing. With the fear going around these days, they were lucky they weren't tackled by a group of nervous passengers.

      FYI and FWIW–Not Orthodox, but Jewish, American

      March 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • DRB

      @ Crabby – Are you 12?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Dom

      DRB..Unfortunately you are the one who is clueless. I am sure most of the people aboard that plane are more tolerant then you could ever be. But sadly these men think it is ok to make people around them feel uncomfortable and draw attention to themselves w/o the decency to try and explain what they are doing to the people around them. It had nothing to do with their culture or religion. They were just rude and insensitive men. They need to understand rules of decency..A gentleman does not act that way.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • dejavux2

      This had nothing to do with the religion, or a lack of sensitivity. It had to do with three men who were not following the TSA rules. When they were told to stay in their seats and fasten their seatbelts, they did not. When they were told again to stay seated, they did not. And the 'guarding' of the bathroom is enough to question them. It has nothing to do with religion. So, if someone's religion or belief is witchcraft, would it be ok for them to light candles on the plane and start chanting? No matter what religion you are, when you step onto a plan, there are rules to follow, period.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • DRB

      @ Dom – Sorry bud. Your reply makes little sense. In fact, I got bored after the first sentence, and had to force myself to read the rest. You've completely missed the point of my post. That's OK though. I expect that from people like yourself. My post wasn't against the airline... it was against the people who use the religion of these men as a base for their hate speech and continued scare tactics. You did however make my point. Would they have been "gentlemen" if they were Christians, praying in English?

      Don't worry Dom, the evil Jews aren't out to get ya. Ya may wanna carry your bible around, just in case though.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Dom

      DRB Hey thanks for the reply, but I guess you missed my point.. If on a plane and you act in a way that makes most people around you uncomfortable, it's you that should check your behavior and find another venue. Freedom of speech is great and if they were in an environment where people could just walk away and not listen that’s fine, but being cooped up in a plane you’re forced to listen to something that you may not feel like hearing. Again this has nothing to do with people's religion or culture. Obviously you do not know what a "Gentleman" is, as my point has nothing to do with religion. It doesn't matter whether they were Christian, Muslim, Jewish...etc. They were just plain rude. Do you know the word empathy?

      March 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  10. sarah

    If it were a muslim, they would have been handcuffed and no one would have cared. Talk about double standards. we should be more tolerant of all religions 🙂

    March 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  11. Chris

    Religious people need to learn that these rules that they supposedly have to follow – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever – are imaginary and made up by man. Their imaginary ruler in the sky doesn't care because he doesn't exist. Period. Grow a brain.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • HAHA

      You think religion's bad, but you're preaching your beliefs, or disbeliefs, to other people. That's what started religion, people preaching and telling stories to other people to change their views. You really must think you're smart for being atheist or agnostic or whatever, but you really are hypocritical. Religion doesn't have to be real, it is a set of rules to make you do good in life and be a good person. It makes people believe that if they are kind to others and do good and what not, they will be in a better place when they die. Stop being such an ass, and get over yourself. Don't go preaching your views to people who may think differently, and might not want to change. If they wanted to be athiest, they would be.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  12. yanni

    I think there is a scripture that basically says not to bring attention to yourself while praying. If you do you are more interested in the attention than the prayer.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Kirstyloo

      Sorry. I think that was in the New Testament not the Old.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  13. A New Yorker

    it does not mean that because you are a jew you don't have to follow TSA rules !! Alaska Air, Your full of it , you dont wanna upset the jew ! how about the rest of people on the plane who actually had brains and used them. if they blew the plane up what good is ur apology ??

    March 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  14. djny

    Got no problem with them praying. FYI to racist ADL who only considers Jews are allowed to pray out loud in airplans and not other religions. FYI to Alaska Airlines what wu** if you are going to apologize for doing your job. Why should there be a separate training for Jewish religion and not others. Seem like an anti sematic to me.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  15. Bman

    Oy vey... 3 weird, strangely acting guys. I'm surprised they took off in the first place.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  16. SH

    The airline crew did absolutely the right thing. Why couldn't these folks be considerate enough to let the attendants know what they were doing. Even so, they had absolutely no right to disobey the usual flight rules. Religious folks from all religions need to understand that their religious rights do not trump safety and mental welfare of those around them.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  17. William

    Yes these men should have explained AHEAD of time what they were doing and why..either to the flight crew or even to the passengers...they have a right to prayer in their own tradition...but many are not aware of the phylacteries used by the Orthodox in prayer...many things could have been alieviated if that were all done a head of time...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Dave

      Fo sho

      March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • KD

      Exactly!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  18. Joe

    "Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the flight attendants?"

    "Yes, my child: "May G_d bless and keep the flight attendants...........far away from us!"

    March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  19. SGT J

    The biggest problem i see is that the three passengers were unresponsive and disobeyed flight crews orders to remain seated. If i were on that plane, it would have went a little differently, not because im not sensitive to other peoples needs, but because when the flight crew orders you to be seated and you disobey and asks you about stuff on your arms and heads and you wont give a more in depth answer, im not gonna sit there and take chances. Shame on them for this spectacle.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  20. Dom

    I agree 100% with hma234. Those men were rude and self absorbed. There are many things that are ok to do and praying is one of them. But to pray aboard a plane to the point where you make everyone around you uncomfortable, is just plain and simple, selfish and ignorant...The airline never should have apologized

    March 15, 2011 at 3:07 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.