Man prays in airplane aisle, for no particular reason

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

That was my first reaction when I saw several versions of this bizarre little story from the tense world of airline travel, especially in the skies around Washington, D.C.

This is one of those cases in which I really need to ask GetReligion readers to look at the whole story. Trust me, this will not take long. This is all of the CBS News item.

DENVER – A United Airlines flight from Denver landed safely in Washington, D.C. after its crew declared an emergency, reportedly because a passenger began praying in an aisle.

According to KUSA-TV in Denver, the plane was escorted by military jets after the crew declared the emergency. The plane landed Thursday at Dulles International Airport.

The Denver TV station says the crew made the decision because a male passenger started praying in the middle of an aisle.

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy says a passenger on flight 662 from Denver to Washington wasn’t following flight attendant instructions for landing.

What in the world is going on here?

I mean, it’s pretty easy to figure out what is going on in this incident. Readers are, I assume, supposed to figure out that a man prostrated in the aisle during one of the five periods in the day in which practicing Muslims are supposed to face Mecca and pray. This is not the only possible interpretation of what is going on, but it is the most logical explanation.

The question, for me, is why the reporter didn’t simply provide that information. Have we reached the point where people cannot mention Islam in connection with security-issue stories, even when that is a fact readers need to know to understand an event in the news? Surely Muslims would not be offended to know that this man was trying to pray.

And then there is the issue of the jet fighters. Did anyone else want to know, if the crew had enough time to call for military intervention, how long it took for this incident to unfold? Why not simply provide a few words that give that detail?

As a Baltimore-Washington area flyer, I also know that another factor almost certainly played a role in this case. Was the airplane flying into Reagan International? If so, passengers are required to stay in their seats for the final hour of the approach. Did this man, while trying to pray, violate that law? If so, why did he stay prostrated after finishing his prayers?

Or did he stay prostrated? I suspect that he began to pray in the aisle, then the crew ordered him to return to his seat. He refused to do so and, thus, they called for the fighter jets. It would have been nice to have known if the man voluntarily returned to his seat after completing his prayers.

All of these questions could have been answered in, oh, two sentences. Why not provide the basic details?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • mollie

    tmatt,
    Why do you assume that readers are supposed to infer it was a Muslim man praying? And why do you reference him being prostrate? Couldn’t he have been standing or kneeling or anything else?

  • tmatt

    Just trying to think of a lock-solid motive for needing to pray at a specific time, no matter what.
    What other form of faith would have required prayer outside of the believer’s seat?

  • Will

    Sure, he could have, but that leaves us with the question “WHY was it treated as an emergency? Won’t there always be prayer on airplanes?”

    The story raises the queasy suspicion that the “news” media are AFRAID to tell us the details.

  • sari

    tmatt,
    The very bare bones blurb said prayed, not prostrated. Prostrated, we’d assume Muslim. Prayed could have been Jewish. I have seen Jewish men daven(pray) in the aisle in order to fulfill the requirement to pray three times daily, not just on El Al, where they’ll wander the flight looking for a minyan (quorum of ten men required for certain prayers to be recited), but on trips to San Diego, Florida, NYC and Newark, and to Germany. My husband was roped into an afternoon minyan at Disney, near Main Street. I also have pictures of an afternoon minyan just prior to boarding the plane in Newark. Mainly, certain parts of the service require the individual to stand, with or without a minyan. And, prayer times are flexible only to a point, the reason why women are exempt from formal prayer.

    I had not assumed anything about the person’s religion, since I know that the MD suburbs and Baltimore have large observant populations.

  • tmatt

    Sari:
    Excellent points and this underlines need for some basic info.

    Would your scenario have led to fighter jets?

  • Brock

    Definitely could have been Jewish. Not only are there time limits for the various daily prayers, there are ones that must be said standing and even one section where the prayer cannot be interrupted. And yes, some Jewish men can be annoying/clueless about where they are when they do this. IIRC, there was a news story a few years ago where a Jewish guy wrapped tefillin on a plane, which alarmed fellow passengers who had no idea what tefillin were (guy fastening mysterious boxes to himself ?= potential terrorist), and when the attendent asked him what he was up to, he was in the middle of the Amidah and wouldn’t reply. Not good.
    Honestly, I’m a little shocked that a blog that makes a big deal out of journalistic ignorance of religion has a blogger who is so ignorant about Judaism they missed this possibility.

  • sari

    Yes, if the guy refused to sit down and it was a high security area, like D.C. Since one should not speak once one has started praying the Amidah portion of the service, some Jewish men would ignore the flight attendant until completing the section.

    I’ve observed flight attendants try to force men out of the aisles, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The ultra-observant answer only to the Highest Authority and to their rabbinic leaders’ rulings. If you rabbis says sit, you sit; if he’s ruled stand, you stand. Some stand at their seats, but that creates other problems and would have generated the same response as the man in the aisle.

    A lot depends on where you travel and on which carrier. In Austin, my long skirts are a flag; TSA ALWAYS pats me down, and wipes my shoes and feet for residue. In the N.E., I’m allowed to pass through security just like everyone else. If I travel to Israel, Israel provides its own security on each end; they question every passenger before boarding begins and seat plainclothes air marshals on every flight..

    Short of stating the passenger’s religion, the article could have mentioned time of day, whether the man stood (Jewish) or prostrated (Muslim) himself. His name would have been nice, too.

    • Mark C.

      There have been enough stories like this over the years that I am convinced that flight attendents, TSA agents, pilots, gate crew, and law enforcement officers should have in their required training and continuing education a significant amount of training on religios and cultural diversity and sensitivity.

      • sari

        Mark,
        T.S.A.and law enforcement pose more of a problem than airline staff, because, training or no, they’re usually drawn from local populations and often lack exposure to people unlike themselves. With no frame of reference, anyone who’s different becomes suspect. Airline staff tend to deal with a more diverse group of people, especially in the large cities along the eastern seaboard. I’d wager there’s a whole lot more to the story. For their part, religious travelers can discuss with airline staff what they plan to do, a strategy which will help both parties address potential problems beforehand. It’s not unlike traveling with a disability.

    • Zed

      First, I cannot imagine that anyone would need to have a name printed, in any news article! That;s too intrusive. But help me to understand, please! I just figured the guy was an ordinary Christian who felt nervous and got on his knees to pray in the aisle. (I know we can pray in various styles but it is particularly important to remember WHO God is, in terms of His universal power, if we feel there is a crisis somewhere)….. And I figured that staff were just so afraid of other passengers getting out of control and catching the ‘panic bug’, figuring that “OH, that praying guy knows more than we do about some crisis on this flight…”, and that the whole escalation of fear was so out of control (sounds a bit like America, right?), that it went as far as …. Fighter Jets??? Really. I just thought it was some ‘normal’ God-fearing American, maybe the ones they call ‘fundamentalists’, who really believe that God is, well, out there in the sky around the plane. Watching over us, so to speak. Just as I do. BUT FIGHTER JETS??? And please tell me: What the heck is the RESIDUE they are checking for? Pee-pee on your shoes? I can’t believe it. Long skirts now are so WIERD?? I am not American, maybe you can help me to understand? And WHAT do the plain-clothes Israeli ‘marshalls’ do??????? Ask if you intend to pray, or not? Anyhow, it goes without saying that people should continue to pray.

      • sari

        Zed,
        Weapons are more easily concealed underneath any clothing loose enough to obscure the body’s contours. The same thing that makes my clothing modest, that it fits loosely rather than tightly and covers areas well-defined by pants, makes me a greater threat. Residue refers to explosive residue, a rule enacted compliments of the Shoe Bomber.

        Israel provides its own security for any flight that enters or leaves Israel. Every passenger on the manifest is profiled. Security asks very personal questions, often about one’s religion, degree of observance, reason for the trip, parents, etc. My first trip they asked if I spoke Hebrew, where I’d studied, my birthplace, the name of various synagogues I’d attended, etc. They are trained to look for inconsistencies. Before trying to blow up a plane, the Shoe Bomber flew to Israel on a trial run. He caught security’s eye and was subjected to additional scrutiny, including an examination of his footwear before he was allowed to board; unbeknownst to him a marshal was his seatmate on the plane. Every flight has several armed marshals on board, all in plainclothes, not to inhibit prayer but to ensure passengers’ safety.

  • Bob Smietana

    “I mean, it’s pretty easy to figure out what is going on in this incident.”

    Nope. It’s easy to assume what’s going on.
    Reporters can’t do that. They have to report what they know, which was at the time that story was filed was very little.

    The Daily has an updated story – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2230310/Plane-forced-emergency-landing-passenger-refuses-stop-PRAYING-aisle.html – with one passenger saying the guy was going to the bathroom.

  • Bob Smietana

    That’s the Daily Mail

  • Jerry

    Bob, thanks for that comment. It’s easy to see how the entire incident could have been misinterpreted into being about religion rather than certain bodily functions. I also note that the link you provided included a reference to an incident with an Orthodox Jew. But it’s also possible that the guy who tweeted about a bathroom break was mistaken. I don’t suppose this story is important enough for a followup so we’ll probably never know.

  • Jimmy

    This happened one time when I was on a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. It was a young Jewish man, quite arrogant fellow I might add, and he wouldn’t stop. The flight attendants were quite upset with him and his friends just laughed the entire time. Thankfully he finally sat down and went to sleep. Certainly unsettling!

  • okramsey

    I think the responsibility for all this rests on the passenger. Why couldn’t he mention as he boarded the plane that he would need to pray at a certain time? Why should the airline and other passengers try and guess what he was doing and if he was dangerous? Then when the man starts praying if anyone is concerned the attendants can calmly explain he’s praying and if they want to know anymore about the guy’s faith ask him after the flight. There is no way everyone can know everything about all faiths and beliefs and if someone is truly praying…

  • JARay

    It is now several years since I flew on a Royal Brunai aircraft. Throughout the flight on the TV screens there is an arrow pointing the direction of Mecca so that any Muslim who wishes to do so may prostrate himself towards Mecca and begin praying. There is also the call to prayer broadcast to everyone if you happen to be in the transit lounge waiting for a change of flight. Before every plane takes off there is a prayer put on the TV screens praying for a safe flight…at least I think that is what it is because I do not speak Arabic.

  • tmatt

    I’m home after a few days of travel.
    I have a question: Has anyone ever seen this kind of security response — JETS in the air — to a Jewish person praying in this manner? I’m not saying that airline personnel should respond this way to Muslims (in fact, I am saying the opposite). What got to me about this story was that readers only need a few more words to get clarity and, thus, avoid all of this speculation.
    Or did the report from THE AIRLINE and security people avoid all clarifying facts?

  • sari

    “Or did the report from THE AIRLINE and security people avoid all clarifying facts?”

    That was my question. Bob Smietana points out that the man may not have been praying at all. And, if the Daily Mail is any indicator, information may have come from passengers rather than the airline or security, which would explain the paucity of detail.

    Jets in the air was specific to a particular locale. Neither Jewish nor Muslim prayers take much time. The Amidah shouldn’t take anyone proficient in Hebrew more than a minute. The rest of the service can be done sitting. The original article mentioned tweets that suggested the man appeared to have an “emotional problem.”

    http://www.9news.com/rss/story.aspx?storyid=298613

    Anyway, nothing in the articles inferred Muslim, which is, I believe, the point you were trying to make.

  • mollie

    One thing that annoys me about these types of stories — and I actually see the “fighter jet intercept” story frequently — is that no one does any follow-up. How much does it cost to do all these escorts? Has there ever been a legit reason to do it? Nobody ever follows-up on any of this stuff. We just live in a fear culture 24-7 and I don’t see any journalists questioning the assumptions.

  • http://cinemacatechism.blogspot.com/ Bender

    Reagan National Airport is, as the name implies, a NATIONAL airport, not an international one.

    Also, the rule about remaining in one’s seat for a HALF-hour before landing has not applied for many years now.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Matt Karnes

    How many fighter jets? What kind? Which service Marine, Navy, or Air Force? Which Squadron. Who ordered them into the air? What kind of protocols are followed? Do captains of airliners have the ability to get on the horn to the Pentagon and scramble the fighters? All of this is important information. Lousy reporting.

  • Proteios1

    I see your point. I thought Christian in prayer as I could relate best to that. Maybe is was another group, cult or new ager, I don’t know. But I think you have to distinguish between biased journalism and really crappy journalism. I think we have the latter.


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