LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An orthodox Jewish prayer observance by three passengers aboard an Alaska Airlines flight on Sunday alarmed flight attendants unfamiliar with the ritual, prompting them to lock down the cockpit and issue a security alert, officials said.
Alaska Flight 241 from Mexico City to Los Angeles International Airport landed safety at LAX and was met by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel and police dispatched as a precaution.
The three men, all Mexican nationals, were escorted off the plane by police and questioned by the FBI before being released to make connecting flights to other countries, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said. No charges were filed, she said.
The three passengers had startled members of the cabin crew with what was interpreted as suspicious behavior shortly after takeoff, airline spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.
“The three passengers were praying aloud in Hebrew and were wearing what appeared to be leather straps on their foreheads and arms,” she said. “This appeared to be a security threat, and the pilots locked down the flight deck and followed standard security procedures.”
It turned out the passengers were engaged in the wearing of tefillin — small, black prayer boxes containing scripture that devout Jews bind to their foreheads and arms with black leather straps in a daily ritual accompanied by special prayers.
Asked about the authorities’ reaction to the alert, Eimiller said: “We’re obligated, of course, to respond when the flight calls us to clear up concerns.”
Reporting by Steve Gorman. Editing by Peter Bohan