SEATTLE (RNS) Alaska Airlines has issued an apology for misinterpreting the devotional behavior of three Orthodox Jewish men on a flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles on Sunday (March 13).
The men had strapped on tefillin—black leather bindings and boxes worn on arms and heads during ritual prayer by some Jews—and were praying in Hebrew, ignoring requests from crew to remain seated during turbulence.

Two of them visited the bathroom while the third seemed to be “standing guard” in the aisle during the four-hour flight, which appeared suspicious, according to the Seattle-based airline’s statement.

Flight attendants locked down the cockpit and radioed a security alert to the Los Angeles airport, where the plane was met by emergency personnel and law enforcement. The three men were questioned, then released with no charges filed.

Tefillin have been mistaken for bombs on other flights recently, including a January 2010 U.S. Airways flight from New York to Louisville, Ky., which was diverted to Philadelphia in response to a Jewish passenger’s prayer ritual.

“While our flight crews must be vigilant in watching for suspicious behavior, they are also trained to be aware and recognize the personalities and practices of a very broad and diverse group of travelers,” said Bobbie Egan, Alaska Airlines spokeswoman, in the statement.

Alaska Airlines said it will incorporate Orthodox Jewish practices into its diversity training and work with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle to avoid such misunderstandings in the future.

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