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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. Judith Simone Rogers

    OY!!!!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  2. Gary

    It's not the flight attendants' job to identify a bomb or decide what is or is not dangerous. They simply reported what they saw as unusual, which to them it was, and it was escalated from there. Better to err on the side of caution. No one was hurt or stripped of their liberties. This is exactly the way something like this should go down when one believes something out of the ordinary has been seen – saying anything to the contrary risks people biting their tongues and not saying anything, which one day could cost lives.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  3. Craig

    What a country of p*ssies we've become. It must suck for you sheep to live in such constant mind numbing fear that you over react to every thing that you don't understand. The terrorists won...and you sheep helped them.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  4. Murph

    The way these men were acting I believe they were doing it for the attention and discomfort of the passengers and crew. Its obvious that with the one guy standing and acting like he is "looking out" as the other two went to the lav, shows me their intentions were not righteous. They probably hatched this scheme looking for a way to sue or get free flights. If your going to do something out of the ordinary you may have to explain it when your on a plane. Sorry but I have no sympathy for them, they brought the action on themselves and they know it.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  5. Matt_L

    Interesting... I can see why the crew became nervous. While I have no objections to people performing their religous rituals–regardless of religion–there is a time and a place to perform them. I wonder what would have happened if a Muslim would have pulled out a prayer rug and tried to pray in the aisle? Aside from being obstructive to the crew, I'm sure they would have freaked and wouldn't have waited the 4 hours the flight lasted; I'm pretty sure they would have diverted somewhere. And from the description of the items given in the story I am surprised the crew didn't take a MORE "intervention-type" action–it sounds like the crew was very low-key about it. Overall, though, I think there should have been more thought on the part of the passengers involved vis a vie the reaction their actions would cause.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  6. CA Muslim

    I'm sorry, but if these guys were Muslim and decided to pray onboard (which is allowed on Saudi Airlines), they would have been tackled in a heartbeat and everyone on here would be cheering it and calling them idiots for doing it saying "they're in America now" so they should follow all "American" customs (whatever that is in a pluralistic society). Instead, Alaska issues an apology. I speak arabic and hebrew and if I saw someone doing this on a plane regardless of who they were, I'd be the first one telling the flight crew to do something.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  7. Judith Simone

    OY

    March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  8. WyoGirl

    I guess I'm torn because I know about tefillin boxes and Orthodox prayer so I probably wouldn't have freaked out or anything. I probably would freak out if a group of Muslims were on the plane praying (I'm not proud of it). Last summer I went to Israel and if you stood up when the seat belt sign was on you'd have got hurt, the Israelis are super strict about following rules, not even airport water is allowed on-board.
    Pray before you get on the plane, there's places in the airport that are set aside for prayer and aren't faith specific. Or pray silently to yourself. Always obey the plane rules.
    I don't think the airline was in the wrong, but religious awareness training is always good, don't limit it to one religion.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • crabby

      Totally agree with you. A little common sense goes a long way!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  9. omgolly

    1. leather straps not wires or tape
    2. Orthodox Jews would be identifiable by dress (side locks, headcoverings)
    3. They passed through "security".

    I'm a Baptist from the middle of Indiana and I know tefellin. It isn't very hard if you spend a minute thinking outside the box you were born into.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  10. Rich

    What idiots these men must be. Talk to your imaginary friend in silence when you are in public.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  11. Paul

    I'm Jewish, and I gotta say – pray somewhere else, man! That's just not necessary on a damn airline flight. Unfortunately, as with any minority, the 1% that radicals and super-religious get all the media coverage. Hey, at least our crazies don't go blowing themselves up and flying planes into buildings ...

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

      When you stop doing the damage you do to the Palestinians then you can talk. Isreal is NOT your land. They will go to any means to get this point across. BUT you buy our politicians and brainwash american people thru the media with your BS.

      That is all this is about Paul.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Dover

      @Kevin. There is a saying:"to the victor go the spoils". Let the Palestinians attempt to take the land back. The Americans are not giving the Indians their land back, the Aussies are not giving the Aborigines their land back, the Kiwis are not giving The Maori their land back.....etc, etc,etc

      March 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  12. lol idiots

    LOL shmuck spelled stupid 'stoopid' your the ones that's stupid

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

      don't you mean "you're"?
      LMAO! look who's stupid now!

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

      And you can't figure out the simple "reply" feature on this site.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  13. John

    If Jews can now pray out loud on flights can Muslims too?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  14. It's Me

    No need to apologize. But maybe it is time to start profiling.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  15. Bindertwine

    I'm sure they wouldn't all turn into pumpkins if they waited the 4 hours for the flight to be over???

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

      Its silly that you make that comment knowing that it was a harmless prayer ritual.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  16. lllll

    they might be testing the water...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  17. Liza Null

    This is what happens when IGNORANCE takes control. People become hysterical and STOOPID.

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

      It spells out S T U P I D...................

      March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  18. jack smith

    ALL RELIGION IS A FAIRY TALE TOLD TO CHILDREN -SOME PEOPLE GROW OUT OF IT OTHERS DO NOT–DO NOT INFRINGE ON AIRLINE TRAVELRS RIGHT TO QUIET FOR 3 MORONS WHO NEVER GREW UP. RELIGION HAS DIVIDED THE HUMAN RACE- GENERATIONS FROM NOW PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT WHAT FOOL'S WE WERE.

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

      Thank you Jack Smith for your post. I'm going to run right over to my church and quit. Generations from now people will ridicule your post because of all your misspelled words and obvious lack of education. Just sayin Jack

      March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Accuteknj

      Jack, and you did outgrew it? And I guess you did evolve from monkeys, or have I heard lately, FISH?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Quit yelling

      And in the future, people won't be too lazy to properly capitalize and therefore won't have the need to type with the caps lock on. As to your point (if there really is one); you have your opinion, good for you. Why is it so important to you that everyone feels the same? Talk about needing to grow up. Get over yourself.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Tsunami Surfer

      You know your point would be more easily read if you didn't write in all caps. It hurts the eyes.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  19. lol idiots

    All those saying they wouldved 'tackled them' or 'knock their lights out' would be the first ones to leave their family behind and run and hide in the bathroom HAHA

    March 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  20. carole Keller

    How sad people are still itinerant like this, boycot this airline..

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

      Right on Carol. I wouldn't fly this airline if they paid me.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      itinerant means wandering – ???

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

      Boycott, heck no. Regardless of the religion, if people are going to practice a ritual/prayer in flight, talk to the flight crew before you do anything. Come on. That is crap, boycott the airline.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Dave NY USA

      Perhaps you need to consult a dictionary, Einstein!

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

      Having flown on most of the airlines during my life and have experienced flying in poor conditions; I have found Alaska Airlines pilots far more competent than other airlines. If Alaska goes where I am going, I fly it. Go ahead boycott it, just makes it easier to get a good seat!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:30 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.