A year ago, I posted an amusing story about a colleague of mine who, because of post-9/11 anxieties, was suspicious of an Orthodox Jewish man praying on a train (see Sometimes a Box Is Just a Box). The conductor knew what the man was doing and explained to my colleague that he was just praying. Trauma over.
Unfortunately, the attendants on Air Canada planes aren't so well informed, nor so skilled at handling the situation. On September 1, 2006, Air Canada's representatives removed an Orthodox Jewish man from a plane because his behavior when he was praying allegedly disturbed other passengers. As is common practice in Orthodox Jewish prayer, the passenger was shuckling -- swaying back and forth, possibly at a rapid speed. This behavior allegedly made "more than one" passenger nervous, though a passenger sitting near the man said that "The action didn't seem to bother anyone." The flight attendant tried to reassure passengers by telling them that "he wasn't a Muslim." When the flight crew were unable to communicate with the passenger in French or English, they removed him from the plane.
I don't know where to begin with what's wrong with this. How could a man be thrown off a plane for an action as simple as shaking back and forth? How a flight attendant could conclude that a person was safe simply because he didn't look like a Muslim? Or assume that he would not be safe if he was a Muslim? And how could she announce such a thing to the passengers? If they had simply explained to the complaining passengers that the man was praying, as the train conductor in my colleague's situation did, the plane could have been on its way with no disruption to anyone. Instead, the flight was delayed for all, and the praying Jew had to explain himself to authorities and catch a later flight -- a serious inconvenience for an Orthodox Jew on a Friday!
We truly live in a frightening world when we have to remove people from a plane for engaging in harmless, albeit strange and unfamiliar, behavior. The Jewish community of Montreal has offered to provide sensitivity training to Air Canada's staff so they will know what is going on in the future and will know how to handle it.
But I would like to correct a misconception I've seen in some of the blog entries about this: the passenger's prayer was probably not related to fear of flying, and probably was not a prayer related to the flight (though a generic prayer for safe travel was likely included). Orthodox Jews pray three times a day, every day, and this may simply have been the most convenient time to do it. Many Orthodox Jews pray on planes or trains or in other public places.
News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):