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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. Howard Rosenman

    I think they sent flyers to the airlines, not fliers? The airlines get fliers on their own 🙂

    March 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  2. Tim

    Oy Vey...Jews gone wild. Coming back from Spring break in Cancun, no doubt.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Beadles

      Thanks for the chuckle. Pretty funny – thinking of those guys in Speedos.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  3. David Reeves

    Seriously, I would have been freaked out by this behavior. Not because they were Jewish but because they were preforming a ritual on an airplane full of people. I wouldn't have cared what the religion was that would have freaked me out regardless of the religion. Then I would have been even more angry later to hear the airline apologize. The airline apologizing is saying it was OK that I was freaked out. It would have been like saying the rights of these men were more important than anyone else rights on the plane. I have no problem with someone praying so long as I don't have to be involved in their religious act. When they pray out loud they are making everyone around them be involved. They is infringing on my religious freedom. When you get on a airplane full of people there is implied understanding that you are going to have mutual respect for the people around you. Those men simply ignored the feelings and beliefs of everyone else around them. The people that needs to be educated here isn't the airline but these men on how to practice their religion in a more appropriate setting.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  4. Rob

    Hear that, terrorists? Now all you need to do is dress up like these guys did and you're free to carry out whatever plans you want openly, without fear of reprisal!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  5. nofoldems

    This story and most comments are examples of how ignorant and intolerant our country has gotten.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  6. Jean

    Jews run the world, Joe? Are you serious? Jews believe Jesus is being boiled alive in semen? Have you people had ANY education at all? You all sound totally ignorant and should be ashamed of yourselves...go to church and learn something for heavens sake and then post what you think.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      Mel?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  7. stephen

    Why is Alaska Airlines apologizing for their actions? These passengers were not following instructions by staying seated when the fasten seat belt light was on. I swear, America has run amuck on political correctness.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Dave1346

      I agree that we've gone over the top with political correctness. In a post 9-11 world and in a mainstream society that generally doesn't pray aloud during the middle of a flight, these men should have had the COMMON SENSE to check with a flight attendant before they began to pray.

      The anti-defamation league is welcome to write all the letters they want ... but the misunderstanding occurred because these men assumed that everyone understood that they were praying when this was clearly not the case.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  8. Travler

    So the air lines are apologizing to the Jewish community for scaring those on the flight. What about the rest of the people that were scared out of the wits by them??

    March 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  9. Jack sheet

    Orthodox Jews = Moslems minus about 1500 years.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  10. ME

    It is their right to pray wherever they want. However it would have been better if those men informed the flight attendant in advance of their plans, especially, as the Rabbi mentioned, such prayer caused similar incidences in the past.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  11. Logic

    Never heard of chanting bringing down a plane. They did have their bags screened PRIOR to boarding did they not? so why the hysteria? If they were too loud, the flight attendants should have asked them to pray quietly. If they allow squalling babies they should allow prayers.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Name*youraidot

      Since i shall 911 live with my. Own eyes and saw mass murder and suicide. How dare anyone to down play any kind of threat no matter how small. . S palin can go kill her sell.. .

      March 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • logic?

      you are telling me that babies who have no control over themselves are in the same boat as grown men who know what the world we live in is today and blatanly disregard questions and instructions from flight crew? you are a moron, sir. if the men dont know the rules they should have listened, if they didnt follow the rules then they deserve what they get, be that bag screenings or a beat down from other passengers/crew. rules are simple, at least i think so.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  12. Really

    Alaska Airlines you have nothing to apologize for. These people are inconsiderate and were not complying with crew instructions. If they feel that strongly about their beliefs maybe air travel is not for them. Further more, training sensitivity... Airlines have enough to worry about with safety regulations. Forget trying to understand every religion and their practices. I think their god will forgive them if they are unable to pray for a few hours.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  13. Intel

    ti menishkien turvis

    March 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • lchin

      זאָרג צו איבערזעצן דיין קוויפּ?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  14. kimberelli

    Everyone has a right to their religion. But something like that should be kept inside the privacy of their own homes/places of prayer. Why do people have to subject others to their beliefs???

    March 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Rich

      Huh? So me talking to myself is subjecting to you something? Don't listen. Your premise is that no one can say anything in public if you happen to not approve of that speech. last I looked, that is the textbook definition of censorship.

      The issue here is how the men handled the situation overall, not that they were praying.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  15. lchin

    This should be an interesting test case for the First Amendment. The Supreme Court sided with the WBBC in their right to protest at the funerals of dead soldiers, parading their signs of hate. Justice Roberts et al said WBBC's rights were protected. Now we have three Orthodox Jews praying on board a flight from Mexico to the US, which in and of itself is not a bad idea and which I do regularly, albeit silently. So here's the question: If you allow the WBBC to protest and claim that right is protected under the First Amendment, then the Jewish businessmen on the flight in question should enjoy the same right. But would that same privledge extend to, say, a practicing Muslim who started off the flight with "Allah ak Bar", or with a Catholic who started to say the Rosary, Hail Mary and all? And what about a Native American who wants to pray for a safe journey? You can't have it both ways. And with that said, this is exactly what the Supreme Court did when they allowed the WBBC to engage in their mission of hate at the soldier's funerals. Who wants to wager that these businessmen will not only sue Alaska Air, but also that there will be repeated instances of people, irrespective of their faith, praying out loud before their flight takes off. Flying is difficult enough already, but throw competing religious groups into the mix with In-the-Air-On-Board-Prayer-shouting matches, this will make taking a Greyhound Bus or Amtrak a pleasure.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  16. nofoldems

    Ignorance is so rampant that people are fearful of something as innocent as prayer.
    BTW, the photo shows a Southwest Airline even though this is story about an incident on Alaskan.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  17. BK

    I disagree with one thing only: that the airline owes anyone an apology. Sorry, not trying to be culturally insensitive, but the behavior of these guys would've made me nervous too!

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

      Yeah, me too!!!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  18. ODDHOME

    Funny, I don't remember that these measures were ever taken when Muslims were similarly treated.....

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

      Excuse me but blowing up airlines or attempting to detonate bombs on an airline IS NOT practicing a religion. Tool.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      I was thinking the same thing.

      "Oh you're not Muslim? We appoligize. Go ahead and finish your prayer."

      March 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      Brent,

      more people have died from the hands of Christians than any other religion in history.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  19. abigel

    Thank god there is not religion (yet) that requires the believers to kick other people's butts. Stupid as we are, we would protect their religious rights.

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

      Are you kidding? Read a little bit of history... People were burned at the stake... and worse (?)...

      March 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  20. Fricsaid

    Sounds like these guy's were trying to stir some sh!t on that flight. Pray to whom ever, if you deem necessary, but when you're in public and are expected to be held to a certain behavior, evading questions regarding your actions is not wise.

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

      Agreed. It's interesting that Alaska apologized: if these guys had been Muslims they'd be in Guantanamo by now.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:22 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.