Ask the pilot

Would you like a little Old Testament with your coffee? How Alaska Airlines has been pushing the Bible for 20 years, and other tales of the religious skies.

Published February 27, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

[Note: I'm soliciting reader experiences with unusual airplane or airport public-address announcements. Be they strange, funny or baffling, send them along. In a later column I'll share the best of them, along with some of my own favorite examples.]

It's only natural, maybe, that after last week's column, in which I complained about pilot-to-passenger miscommunication, I find myself having to retract, recant and reiterate (if not repent). I was not, as a number of readers seem to think, advocating a dose of harsh discipline for poor Roger Findiesen, the villainized captain of American Airlines flight 34 who evangelized to passengers prior to takeoff from Los Angeles on Feb. 6. The more I learn of the event, the more I find the whole thing terribly overblown.

Of course, stories like this have a way of becoming cancerous. At this point, what Findiesen actually said or, more important, how he said it matters little, lost in a storm of self-perpetuating half-truths, rumors and misquotations. Those who saw the early posting of my Feb. 20 article know that I too had some of it wrong:

1. Findiesen made his announcement at 35,000 feet, to panicked passengers trapped in a pressurized cabin far from safety and sanity.

Wrong. Flight 34 was still on the ground, languishing in a departure queue at LAX.

2. After a show of hands, Findiesen called non-Christians "crazy."

Or did he? According to at least one eyewitness, the reference was made good-naturedly, not divisively, and the captain may or may not have been encouraging onboard Christians to lecture or engage their non-Christian seatmates.

"Evangelize." "Proselytize." Those are the catchwords in this story, and stronger ones, possibly, than are due. Which isn't to say he did the right thing; only that we should more closely examine the context before demanding Findiesen trade in his wings and hat for a pitchfork and tail.

Reacting to the furor, American has pulled the airman from duty until it figures out an appropriate penance, if any. Give the guy a few days off, if you ask me, and let it rest.

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Should it come down to more severe measures, however, Findiesen might consider relocating to the Pacific Northwest. At Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, a bit of in-flight Bible study is less a matter of crewmember whim than an in-house tradition. High over the clouds, passengers at Alaska may come across the following heavenly chatter:

"I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name
O most high."
-- Psalm 9:2

No, that's not your captain speaking, it's your breakfast tray, which includes not only the usual assortment of cups, containers and wrappers, but an inspirational notecard with a snippet from the Old Testament -- a company custom since the mid-1970s. Alaska Airlines is well-known for unusually gracious passenger service, and its catering seems to come with its own holy blessing:

"I will praise God's name in song, and glorify Him with thanksgiving."

Hey, and for an upgrade I'll baptize myself in the lav and spend a weekend digging latrines at a Guatemalan orphanage. For better or worse, I figure there's no shortage of Americans willing to hear out a prayer or two if it means some tastier food and a wider seat.

If you're inclined to send a complaint Alaska's way, be prepared for the following:

"The meal prayer card has been a simple tradition on our flights for over 20 years. The quotes have application across many Judeo-Christian beliefs and are shared as a gesture of thanks which reflect the beliefs of this country's founding as in the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Pledge of Allegiance and every U.S. coin and dollar you handle. Alaska Airlines is an international carrier with very diverse customers, and we have no intentions of offending anyone or their beliefs. An overwhelming majority of our customers have indicated they appreciate the gesture, and those who don't are not forced to read it. We do appreciate hearing from you, and look forward to welcoming you on board another flight in the future."

The mistake here isn't the card, but the flavor of justification for it. The carrier takes a fully defensible gesture and promptly makes it as offensive as possible by coupling it with nationalistic ideology. Maybe it's just me, but when I see the words "Judeo-Christian" in the same sentence with "Declaration of Independence" and "Pledge of Allegiance," my blood pressure begins to soar. Alaska Airlines has the right and privilege to hand out prayer cards, rosary beads, ACLU membership forms, or the biography of L. Ron Hubbard if it so chooses (some of you, doubtless, will contest this right, but I'm sticking to it). However, I'm greatly disheartened to see the matter of religion dragged, yet again, onto the stage with patriotism and the alleged essence of what it means to be a true American.

An airline spokesperson tells me a less-loaded communiqué is in fact the "official" response to prayer-card protesters but was unable to share a copy.

At United Airlines, copies of the Gideons' Bible are stocked in the first-class magazine rack. Several months ago a decision was made to discontinue this tradition, but according to Gideons the airline has since reconsidered. This from the group's Web site: "Did you know... that Gideon Bibles are placed on commercial airlines? On January 14, United Airlines reaffirmed their commitment to have the Word of God available on their flights. Praise God for this confirmation!"

Eight thousand miles away, patrons of Malaysia Airlines, a carrier whose home country is less than 70 percent Muslim, will discover prayer pamphlets stacked in every jet's entryway. In a choice of English, Malay or Arabic, pious -- or at least nervous -- riders may partake of the pre-departure "doa," which goes like this:

"In the name of Allah when taking off and landing,
verily my God is most forgiving and merciful."

Stacked in a holding pattern and worried about your connection?

"O Allah, facilitate our journey and let us cover its distance quickly."

If this Allah business leaves you uneasy, I was once handed a small card from an airport chaplain in Charlotte, N.C.:

"Dear Lord, I thank you,
Please provide for a safe flight,
and travel to and from the airport.
Bless and watch over me
At my destination."

Malaysia Airlines' 747s and 777s are outfitted with Muslim prayer rooms, while the in-seat video screens show a constantly updated qibla compass, giving the real-time distance and direction to Mecca. Other carriers with Muslim customer bases have almost identical amenities -- if indeed that's the right word.

Among them is Emirates, headquartered on the edge of the Persian Gulf and among the world's fastest-growing and most highly regarded airlines. I'm constantly singing the praises of Emirates, but at least one reader was quick to denounce my calling the company "airline of the year," angrily accusing it of nothing less than blatant anti-Semitism for -- and here we go -- refusing to stock kosher meals.

Intriguing, but then again they don't stock Zoroastrian meals either. Although thousands of non-Arabs and non-Muslims fly Emirates every day, the airline points out that its numbers of Jewish passengers, particularly those strict enough to require kosher, can probably be counted on one hand.

Needless to say, food prepared by dictate of halal, the Islamic equivalent of kosher, is no trouble. In fact all Emirates meals, including six(!) vegetarian options, are halal. Muslims unable to verify adherence are known to indulge in kosher, though evidently it doesn't work the other way around. In the words of one traveler's Web posting: "Kosher food has to be supervised by a rabbi, and I'll eat my yarmulke the day Emirates has one of them working in their business." We'd sooner expect flight attendants on El Al to give out Palestinian flags, maybe.

In America, Continental Airlines, with an enormous New York City hub (Newark), no longer provides a kosher option except on services to Tel Aviv. While protests against Continental are relatively scarce (though at least one online petition is looking for signatures), the World Wide Web is alive with screams of bigotry, "phobo-Semitism," and "anti-Jewish policy" at Emirates, perhaps belying the controversy as purely religious instead of the more confrontational Arab vs. Israeli.

Looking for secular sanity? Atlanta might be heart and soul of the nation's Bible Belt, but there's no religious baggage on hometown Delta Air Lines. If you're lucky enough to have a seat in Delta's tony BusinessElite cabin, you'll have to draw what inspiration you can from the airline's take-home amenities kit. Inside you'll find a sort of pseudo-spiritual fortune cookie called -- and I am not making this up -- a Chinese Romance Card.

Blasphemy of blasphemies, word has it that Delta is on the verge of changing one of the coolest and most inventive amenities cases around -- its semi-rigid, triangular ("widget-shaped" in Delta-ese) zipper bag that looks something like a bicycle seat. Get one while you can. Packable, squashable and indestructible, the kit holds ear plugs, socks, mints, lip balm, toothbrush -- and your Chinese Romance Card. And not a cross, star or crescent in sight. Amen to that.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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