Couple Kicked Off American Airlines For Refusing To Place Prayer Shawl Under Seat In Front Of Them

A couple flying home from Miami to Newark on American Airlines flight 322 was booted off the evening departure when they refused a flight attendant request to place their prayer shawl underneath the seat in front of them.

According to a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the passengers, their tallit bag was in the overhead bin above their seat. A flight attendant came by, took it out of the bin and asked whose it was. When they raised their hand, the crewmember tossed it at them and said it had to go underneath the seat.

Unclear from the story, it’s a small bag, I’m going to assume though that the overhead bin was full, that the bag was protruding out, and this was the quickest and simplest way the flight attendant had to close the bin so the aircraft could push back on time.

The passenger explained it’s a religious item and it cannot be placed on the ground. The shawl would have been fine on a lap, but since there was a bag that had to be placed under the seat in front of them or in the overhead bin. And the flight attendant had just pulled it out of the bin.

“It’s a religious item, it cannot go under the seat,” Roberto explained, removing his baseball cap to reveal his kippah covering his head and explaining that as an Orthodox Jew, he is forbidden to place the precious shawl on the floor.

“It doesn’t matter,” the attendant allegedly sniffed.


Tallit, Credit: Mushki Brichta via Wikimedia Commons

They were kicked off the aircraft for not complying. They had to spend the night in Miami at their own expense without their checked bags.

American Airlines Boeing 737-800s have ‘space bins’ that allow a standard carry on bag per passenger if all bags are stowed properly (they never are). It’s almost certainly the case that a flight attendant could have identified bags which could be turned on their side to make room for the tallit bag, or found space for it somewhere else on the aircraft. It’s rally quite small, since it’s just holding a shawl.

It seems as though there was no reason for this incident to escalate that passengers were removed from the aircraft, based on the facts in the suit. American Airlines reportedly was unwilling to comment on this pending litigation.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. As much as passengers who don’t know or care to stow their bags properly bother me, not enough FAs take an extra few seconds to readjust bags so that all bags will fit. This would have avoided all this.

  2. I reiterate comments I’ve made before, it’s the mentality of American Airlines and it starts with Dougie Parker. Their employees are not considered part of the success or failure of American. He basically said that in a speech to employees several years ago. It made the news. The “you do what we tell you to do and we’ll make money” doesn’t work. Another US carrier’s philosophy is, “you have everything to do with our profitability” and a “do what is right” when it comes to a “tallit bag” type scenario. A “I’m going to turn your bag on its side” or “I’m going to move your bag to this overhead bin” would have satisfied the passenger (who pays the salaries), the religious significance of the bag, and allowed the jet to push back on time. American’s “union mentality” is “Management doesn’t care about me so I don’t have to do any more than is required.” Other union carriers have a slightly different mentality. My suggestion is: fly another carrier. It might be worth the small price differential.

  3. They didn’t want to put it on the floor, but the probably equally filthy overhead bins were fine.

  4. To kick someone off a flight requires a consensus among the the flight attendant, her coworkers, the captain, and the ground staff. I think someone amongst them provided a reasonable option that we’re not hearing. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions with limited information.

  5. Well…at least airiness stupidity is not reserved only for members of the Muslim faith. The typical bag holding a tallit is smaller than a notebook computer, and a lot softer — it could have EASILY remained in the overhead with no problem, sitting atop someone else’s carry-on suitcase. They take no room whatsoever!

    I don’t care how rushed or harried the FA was — this escalating to the level of getting thrown off the flight is (unless the pax started throwing punches or something like that) is ludicrous.

  6. The root of the problem is too many carry on bags since most airlines charge to check luggage. Not only does this slow down boarding and deplaning but also causes gridlock throughout the terminal (security, restaurants, restrooms , etc) and also causes flight delays when all carry on bags don’t fit in the cabin.

  7. @Chris, would you want to eat off of it or sleep on it? It is the ground you are standing on, when you are on the aircraft. Would you consider it the ground if someone threw the American flag down on it?

  8. @chris I believe the issue is not the literal “ground” but the idea that it is where people walk with their feet. Feet have all sorts of religious connotations across many different religions, including showing the bottom of your feet or where shoes are placed. Call it superstitious nonsense if you want, but if you go around patting children on the head in Thailand or flashing your middle finger in New York, prepare to get beaten to a pulp.

  9. Right, there may have been other options offered.

    Or take it out and hold it for take off and landing and put the bag under the seat?

    It sounds like there were too many egos at play here from all angles.

  10. For some reason, the term “Here primarily for your safety” keeps coming to mind in these sorts of stories.
    I saw this story on the NY Post earlier and was wondering why they didn’t offload the bags. Don’t airlines usually make a big deal out of bags not flying without the passenger onboard?

    Maybe the FA was ex-US Air and it’s all retribution aimed at Jews in general?

  11. I’m Jewish but not super religious. It is a very black and white idea that Talit do not go on the floor. This isn’t something I would quibble about what is a floor and clean vs dirty. It just isn’t like that.

    The bag is far smaller than a purse and most are soft sided. My bag is probably 12 in x 12 in x 2 inches. Not too different from a good paper folder. I truly cannot imagine seeing it not fit with their bags on top or in front. Or finding another bin where it will fit (ie over F).

    And, while I don’t love our current system, typically, if a bag is there first, and it fits, it can stay.

    How did this escalate to getting someone kicked off? Shame on AA.

  12. Religious items in the Jewish faith such as a Talit and Tefilin bag or sacred texts cannot be placed on the floor. It is disrespectful to demand one commit a Sacrilegious act is unconscionable. The lack of cultural awareness is appalling . It is stretch not to declare this incident as Discriminatory, with ethnic and religious animals. If there is a silver equivalent of a hate crime this is it.

  13. “ tossing it at the Passenger” is rude behaviour from the Flight Attendant. I’d call them out for their behaviour and lack of respect to move the item to another area of the aircraft. I flew a packed 747 sitting in the upper deck. Our FA took our carry on and placed it in a crew area. But of course this was an International Carrier that provided safe and very professional service. American Airlines sounds awful, by reading your news letters

  14. @Joe, it’s not about a filthy overhead bin, in Judaism religious items aren’t placed on the floor. I would assume that would be the case with any religious item regardless of one’s faith. Certain items are sacred. Upon passing Jews are buried in their talit. It’s a very small and sacred item. Shame on AA.

  15. Some people here are incredibly tone death. Same goes for flight att’s. I read this as a F/A issue where the F/A was:

    – on a power trip
    – has a dislike for people that aren’t like them.

  16. Seems like FA’s are raring for a fight these days. The FA crew on two recent SWA flights were pre-emptively rude in their delivery of the (ad nauseum) reminders about mask wearing, as if they were just daring someone to act up. I was surprised as I have never encountered rude FA’s on SWA. I have one upcoming trip I have to take. Then I am done flying for the foreseeable future. The skies are too unfriendly no matter who you fly.

  17. It wouldn’t have been on the ground. It was in a bag. That’s the whole reason it’s in a bag to begin with. He just wanted the foot space.

  18. Hwong Kim,

    You are a fool, especially since others have taken pains to explain the sacrilegiousness of placing it on the ground.

    I wonder if your antipathy towards Jews will be met by others who think it is a symbol of a backwards culture to eat dog.

    Right at you………………………

  19. I feel that all religious things like this are just man-made (and I do mean MAN, not woman) historical customs which are nonsense but that have evolved over the centuries. Evolved by men, not supernatural deities who appeared and declared prayer shawl rules (for example). But having said that, AA and the FA were totally and completely in the wrong in this situation. These were their customers, and the situation did not require being booted off the flight. The item is obviously not a random scarf, and the passenger explained that. The FA had many other options and could have found a way to NOT have it put on the floor. If whatever religious nonsense rules can be accommodated because they don’t adversely affect or harm anyone else, then fine.

    I am totally in favor of booting MEN of extreme conservative Jewish faith off a plane because they claim their religion forbids them from sitting next to women. And if a Muslim demanded to put a prayer rug on the aisle floor and pray to Mecca, boot him off too. If an evangelical christian insisted on conducting a loud preflight prayer ceremony, then boot them off too.

    But here’s some advice to these and other passengers who carry prayer shawls or similar: perhaps if the prayer shawl and the bag it might be in (that might also have religious significance, or was knitted by your grandmother along with the shawl) could be put inside a large ziploc bag or other bag, so that it would not actually touch the floor if required to put it there? I agree with the other commentators that I would not want my prayer shawl or even my $5 scarf on the dirty floor. So have another option in case you run into an insensitive FA. If I were carrying an American flag, I would have no problem placing it on the floor under the seat in front of me IF it was inside some other protective bag. The same should apply to the shawl.

  20. I am Jewish. The actual religious item is INSIDE the bag. Therefore that/those items never touch the floor. The passenger would have handled this so many other ways, or simply, during takeoff…placed it under the seat and maybe on his feet. The bottom line is that it is unsafe to have anything on the floor during takeoff as in the event of a rapid evacuation of the plane things on the floor become a hazard. This man should have complied and frankly been prosecuted. We need stricter laws for everyone on planes, not just kicking them off or banning them from that particular airline. Prosecute them. If people cannot comply then people should not fly. And I fly a lot.

  21. My first thought is that the FA was incredibly disrespectful toward the passenger. Once she heard it was a religious item that required respectful care and placement, the FA should have been doubly respectful. This behavior should get the FA sacked but AA likely won’t do diddly.

  22. You say “I’m going to assume though that the overhead bin was full, that the bag was protruding out,” but I’m been on many AA flights where a small bag is properly stowed in the overhead, and an FA takes it out and tells the owner to put it under the seat, to accommodate another passenger’s large roller board that would otherwise be gate-checked.

  23. it wouldn’t be placed on the floor. the bag that the tallis is in has no religious significance. it’s the tallis that can’t be on the floor.

    they’re making a stink about nothing.

    next thing you know they’ll delay the plane because they don’t want to sit next to a woman.

    oh! Wait!!!!!!

  24. And if you read the story, this was his ONLY carry-on! Truly a power trip! Good for them for suing, unfortunately i don’t see any change happening. As they announce when you board, we are (only) here for your safety.

  25. They’ll probably just cite it as being a safety requirement “federal regulations requires passenger compliance with lighted signs, posted placards, and of course their favorite: Crewmember instructions.”

  26. Raised in Jewish home and never heard about this…which isn’t to say it isn’t true or the care that should be taken, but it obviously unnecessarily escalated. From my perspective such a soft item would present no hazard if the passenger were allowed to hold it, put it in the seat pocket, or easily slide it into an overhead on top or the side. Perhaps the passenger was looking for some drama. They could have slipped it inside a shirt, waistband, behind their damn back as a “pillow”. wondering if bigger issue was concern by FA of non compliance if there were an on board emergency they also would not comply with driectives in the moment. And I’m sure there were plenty of other places the FA could have stashed it for the flight duration…even in the storage area in the cockpit….

  27. There is nothing more here than an AA FA with an IQ of 80 and a power complex and a fellow flight crew that could not care less about proper human behavoir.

  28. FYI

    It matters not that the tallit is in its own bag It is never placed on the floor (even if in a bag or suitcase) as it is considered to be a holy item by Jewish people period I am Jewish and since childhood I was taught to always honor and respect religious items. This would be equivalent to the Bible or Koran being placed on the floor You do not do that because these items are holy and contain God’s name Thus, putting God’s name on the floor is a no no it is sacrilege

    When I travel I always carry my tallit in my hand luggage which goes in the overhead bin The reason I do not place it in my checked baggage is. because I have no way of knowing where my baggage may be placed by those handling it For those who do not already know, the reason the tallit has its own soft case is so that it can be kept clean when not in use. The purpose of the cover/soft case is NOT so you can put it on the floor when not in use

    The tallit and it’s bag are quite small and hardly occupy any space If placed in this situation I would have removed the tallit and placed it on my lap It would have been no bigger than a small to medium sized flat pillow on a lap Yes a flat pillow It would not obstruct movement in case of an emergency

    I am disgusted by the fact that the flight attendant tossed this item onto the passenger who owned it It would be equivalent to throwing a holy bible onto the passenger It’s low class and disrespectful

    This flight attendant needs some serious training in cultural and religious sensitivity and tolerance You do not treat people different than you with such disrespect and disdain Sadly disrespect for others not like us has.become standard operating procedure by some living in America We all need to go back to the drawing board and learn an important lesson – that we are all members of the human race regardless of creed, sex and ethnic background Our blood is still red regardless of where we come from We are still Americans Respectfully submitted

  29. I am sick and tired of FA’s asking to place stuff in front of you. I would have no problem with this if there was actual space. I am over 6ft, which is not extreme, but most of my length is in my legs. And I also don’t have small feet. So the space for my feet shall be used for what I paid for: space for my feet. I am bringing on the approved size and quantity of carry-on and should not be inconvenienced or – worse – bullied into squashing my computer backpack in what little space exists for my legs.
    Also: FA’s, stop moving passengers shit around without telling them. Often when we reach the gate and are deplaning it seems there are an equal amount of people trying to move to the back to retrieve bags as there are trying to move forward. And if your bag does end up behind you, be a considerate human being and wait until you can retrieve it (or someone retrieves it for you). I did not sign up for full body contact in the aisle with your sweaty smelly self. And I definitely do not want the concussion from the bag that is being pulled from behind my head by you.
    *end rant*

  30. Gary’s blogs coward commenters: “man, us Christians are SO persecuted nowadays. People dislike us for no reason at all.”

    Also Gary’s blogs coward commenters: “SOMEONE IS A DIFFERENT RELIGION THAN ME? TIME FOR ME TO TALK ABOUT HOW I HATE THEM.”

  31. Although I thought I knew (or thought I could predict) the answer to this issue, it turns out it’s more complex than I thought. After checking a couple of Orthodox websites debating on this issue, it turns out it’s not at all clear. You have some people arguing that it’s anti-Semitic and a clear insult, while others point out that because of the bagging, it’s not technically going on the ground, therefore it’s not an issue. And still others point out that the couple didn’t try to resolve this in a calm, reasoned manner and they’re an embarrassment to the Jewish community. A full spectrum of opinion.

    What you really have here is a bunch of people who got their ego stuck – the FA, the flight crew, and the passengers, all thinking they were correct, and none of them definitively were. Except the flight crew gets the final word in this situation, so if you want to fly, you have to do what they say. Even if they’re wrong. So the bottom line is, unless your life is in danger, follow what the flight crew says, get to your destination, and then complain later. God will forgive you for obeying a misinformed authority figure. Consult your rabbi when you get home, and if he says it’s you who are misinterpreting the commandment, then you just saved yourself a whole lot of tsuris.

  32. This is absurd. It should have been checked. They could have placed it on the seat and sat on it. One of them could have placed it across their laps. Trying to get people to feel sorry for you based on your religion is getting very tiresome. To the rest of us it just looks like a blanket. If an item can’t go under the seat in front of you, it should not be in the cabin. FAs are busy getting ready for an on-time takeoff. They should not be expected to rearrange overhead bins.

  33. Oh wait! I missed the obvious. It’s a Prayer Shawl. Put it over your shoulders like … a shawl. There ya go, problem solved.

  34. Nice one sided story. We don’t know how large the bag is, nor do we know if American Air charges for overhead space. All we have is the couples assertions that they were polite and complacent while the FA was completely out of control.
    Usually, there would be a viral video on the internet by now. Strange.. Maybe this is some sort quick money grab situation. Unlike the Chinese doctor on United who got a couple of teeth knocked out for refusing to give up his seat, I don’t believe this couple will get very much for their pain and suffering.

  35. In response to Robert and others who have written in this discussion thread, , this is what I wish to say.

    You are correct in stating that so far this is a one sided story. We still do not know all of the facts. However, I very much doubt that such an incident would have gone viral as you point out. No one was beaten up. No one was physically assaulted. This was probably just a subdued verbal altercation which attracted little attention from other passengers. The incident of Dr. David Dao on the United Airlines flight is an entirely different beast and of different magnitude. That incident resulted in a major lawsuit against UAL as Dr. Dao sustained multiple physical injuries including a cerebral concussion. My understanding is that the Dao versus UAL case settled for $ 140 million. It is a lot of money but I think it sends a strong signal that you do not beat up and abuse passengers on your plane. From what I also understand, Dr. Dao sustained a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) during this incident and that was the basis of UAL having settled in the amount of $ 140 million.

    I agree that the lawsuit over the talit incident will likely result in little to no monetary recovery as there were no resulting psychiatric, neurological or orthopedic injuries. I do not know if a “discrimination” lawsuit would really stick either as there is no evidence that the flight attendant was acting in a deliberate discriminatory fashion What she did was stupid and insensitive (throwing the talit at the passenger). But you do not know what frame of mind she was in. Flight attendants these days are on the defensive. You hear about all types of stories about flight attendants being beaten up over enforcing mask rules on board aircraft. I think there is a heightened level of autonomic arousal among flight attendants these days which makes them more prone to reacting in a fight/flight mode. Passengers have not exactly been friendly and respectful towards flight attendants who are trying to do their jobs. Imagine going to work each day not knowing if you will be beaten up by some passenger over your telling him/her to wear a mask. This, in itself, would put you in an arousal mode which would make you more likely to react aggressively in a conflict situation.

    I believe that .the discrimination lawsuit filed by the owner of the talit was only filed to drive a point home. That one needs to respect others’ religious and other beliefs.

    I agree with some of the individuals who wrote on this post that there was an easy solution to all this – Take the talit out of the bag and place it on your lap. Then place the bag containing other items on the floor under your seat. Why this person did not do this is puzzling to me. That is the first thing that I (or any other reasonable person) would have thought of doing.

    I very much doubt that we are going to hear much about this case in the future. I have a feeling AA will send the man some type of letter of semi-apology with a voucher for some travel and that will be the end of it.

    Remember that when lawyers take a case on there is expectation that the case will result in some form of worthwhile monetary recovery for all involved. As some of my lawyer friends would say, it is one thing to file a lawsuit but it is another thing to win it.

  36. I, too, am a secular Jew and was curious what the actual religous law regarding the tallit bag might be. I ended up on a religous news site where there was a lively discussion and the general consensus is that because a tallit bag is lined, there are two layers between the prayer shawl and whatever the bag touches and that there is no religous reason not to place it on the floor although, one of the posters who articulated this, said “not that I would do it.”

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