Alaska Airlines, Your Mega-Church in the Sky


A few years ago I was on a plane that almost went down. The person next to me had spent the flight trying to convince me why I was wrong in my “choice” of religions, and when the wingtip almost hit the ground he looked at me and with all seriousness said, “At least I know where I’m going when I crash.”

Some might have found his comment and attitude offensive. Others might have nodded in agreement. I saw it as proof of what is strong about this country. This is America, and he is entitled to his beliefs; my co-passenger was entitled to believe that I was wrong, and it mattered not that he was convinced that I would have been on the way to Hell had the plane crashed. That’s what is great about America — you can think another person is entirely wrong, and you can even say so. They in turn can choose whether to argue with you or to simply ignore you.

I smiled at him, said I was glad he was so secure, but that I was even more glad the plane had landed safely.

Here’s the thing: Had the pilot gotten on the intercom and given the same message, it would have been an entirely different story. I had paid for my seat (well, actually my student congregation had), and I did not expect to be proselytized by the person whose paid job was to fly the plane. That’s what churches, synagogues, mosques and the guy who was sitting next to me are for.

I’m a congregational rabbi. Obviously it goes without saying that I am not anti-religion, I am pro-religion; I am also pro-choice when it comes to what one chooses to believe or not believe, and I firmly believe in a true separation of church and state.

Fundamentalists of all types would have us believe that separating our government from religious beliefs is an assault on faith, but nothing could be further from the truth. The absence of a state sponsored religion does not prevent me from practicing my Jewish faith, nor does it keep Mike from being active in his Catholic church, nor does it force Judie to participate in something that she isn’t part of or she doesn’t believe in. NOT having a state sponsored religion means the guy next to me on that plane is free to practice his faith, feel secure if the plane crashed, and even tell me I’m in “big trouble” if it does. There is nothing lost to him, because there is a separation of church and state; there is nothing lost to me because he can’t force me to believe as he does. The absence of a state-sponsored religion insures that no one is rendered a second or third class citizen because of what they choose to believe or NOT believe. It is part of the foundation of this country.

It is for this reason that I was perplexed to learn that Alaska Airlines is about to stop the practice of including prayer cards with their meals. No, I wasn’t perplexed that they were stopping the practice, but rather I was perplexed as to why they would have begun the practice in the first place. Why would an airline put religious, and therefore exclusionary, prayer cards with their meals?

By their own admission it was a marketing gimmick. In a memo written by the company’s chairman and president, it was explained:

A former marketing executive borrowed the idea from another airline and introduced the cards to our passengers in the late 1970s to differentiate our service.

Pseudo-piety as marketing tool. Now that is offensive.

If a Christian wanted to recite Psalms before a meal, then I would assume if it is important enough to them that they would bring their own Bible — whether it was a dead tree version or an app on their phone. They shouldn’t need the airline to provide that, right? And if a Jew wanted to recite birkat hamazon (grace after meals), I would expect him or her to bring their siddur (prayer book) with them  or have it on their phone.

We don’t need an airline, or a public school, entering into an arena that our homes and religious institutions are fully capable of covering. The only purpose I can see served by prayer cards is to send the message to  anyone who doesn’t use the quoted religious text that “As an airline will charge you full price for your ticket, but we still consider you second class citizens.” That is offensive. As is, to my mind, the fact that the cards refer to the Diety using the masculine singular “HE”.

Many in our nation are quick to condemn religious zealotry in other parts of the world when, in fact, we have plenty of our own here in the good ol’ USA. Want prayer? Go to a church, synagogue, or a mosque. Want to be cramped, nickeled and dimed, and feel like you have been through the meat grinder by the time you reach your destination? Fly a commercial airline.

This difficult decision was not made lightly. We believe it’s the right thing to do in order to respect the diverse religious beliefs and cultural attitudes of all our customers and employees …

Good for you Alaska Airlines. But seriously, why in the world did it take you this long?

Read More:

Alaska Airlines To Stop Handing Out Prayer Cards

Alaska Airlines to stop handing out prayer cards to passengers


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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.

19 Comments on "Alaska Airlines, Your Mega-Church in the Sky"

  1. As an atheist, I have to say that I wouldn’t be overly offended to have a prayer card included with my meal. Getting a meal on a commercial airline is close to a miracle, after all.

    Whether or not christians hand out prayer cards I realize they consider me a second class citizen, as do most jews and muslims (not necessarily yourself). Besides, the co-opting of religion to promote commerce is an old, established American custom. One need look no further than the winter solstice holidays, yours included.

  2. “Getting a meal on a commercial airline is close to a miracle, after all.”

    🙂 lol

  3. You think it is a miracle … And then they deliver it!

  4. They do seem closer to manure than manna.

  5. The miracle is if you survive the meal! Ever go into a 7-11 (or other regional convenience store) and spot those pre packaged “heat and eat” sandwiches? I flew Continental once and they served those as the meal…it was exactly as scary as you’d expect.
    Anyway, I didn’t know Alaska Airlines had prayer cards and I am glad to see them ditch it. I would give Dan’s post an “AMEN!” but that seems like the wrong answer somehow! 😉

  6. You know I think it’s cool that they did this but that is because I am Christian.  I also will use a car repair shop that has free Bibles.  I don’t necessarily go out of my way to frequent businesses that do stuff like this, but I do appreciate when they do it and I see nothing wrong with it so long as they aren’t shoving it in your face and preaching at you or telling you that your going to hell if you don’t read them.  Alaska Airlines doesn’t seem to be doing that.  They just have these otherwise nice cards with Bible verses on it.  I can see how some might be offended and if I had a Public company like Alaska Air, I probably wouldn’t do it.

    As of now, only first class was getting them as they don’t serve meals in coach any more.  The practice itself started 30 years ago when it was much more common for people to not get offended by something as trivial as a card with a few innocuous words on them.

    Oh and if they had Jewish cards or Zen Buddhist cards, that wouldn’t offend me either.  It takes a lot to offend me.  A little card with some words on it won’t even come close….even if it’s something that is blasphemous to me.  If I read something like that, then the onus is on ME and not on the person who gave it to me….I just destroy it at that point.

    That’s my opinion….for what it’s worth.

  7. “if I had a Public company like Alaska Air, I probably wouldn’t do it.”
    Joel this is really the crux of the matter. It isn’t offensive it is just unnecessary and potentially exclusionary.
    BTW- at least from what I can see of they cards they had Old Testament (what we call the Hebrew Bible) verses so they actually ARE Jewish verses. They just don’t belong there and it ought to be BYOBC (Bring Your Own Bible Cards)

  8. Here is how I see it and why it bothers me:

    Companies taking a controversial stance for business reasons is one thing. A good example is Google and SOPA. Google’s livelihood was threatened by it, so it isn’t surprising they participated in advocating against it. Even the most staunch anti-piracy advocates can understand that Google had a vested interest in changing the proposed bill. Whether they agreed or disagreed, there was a good reason for shoving an anti-SOPA message front and center.
    Alaska Air, on the other hand, had a flimsy excuse of “marketing”. It cheapens religion by treating it as a novelty rather than showing respect for the varied and personal ways people express their beliefs. Even companies that have waded into the religious waters before do it with a more tangible outcome. Like the “Shop Rite Guide to Passover” that my dad loves to riff on each Passover. Shop Rite uses religion as a carrot (along with coupons) to increase sales. It is a bit sleazy but there’s a clear purpose. Alaska Air can’t articulate a good reason other than “gimmick” and that’s not ok, and in my opinion cheapens the religious beliefs they claim they are trying to honor.
    Either that or they were implying you needed to pray if you wanted a safe flight. 😉

  9. I agree with Carly that it’s pretty pointless when this was no more than a marketing tool for the airline. If there’s no conviction conveyed with the presentation, it does cheapen the religion.

    That being said, I have no problem in general with a business that chooses to promote Christianity, just as I have no problem eating in a Chinese restaurant that has a big dragon out front and ends the meal by bringing me a silly fortune cookie.

    There’s a CONSIDERABLE amount of ground between a privately owned (or even a public traded company) promoting their religion and a government funded school doing the same thing.

  10. Wait – are you SERIOUSLY comparing going to a specific cultural food outlet, where the fact that there are stereotypical images related to that culture on display for the sole purpose of displaying ‘authenticity’ with a company in the business of transport pushing a particular religious slant in an exclusionary way? 

  11. No, that wasn’t my point.

    Dan wrote: “We don’t need an airline, or a public school, entering into an arena
    that our homes and religious institutions are fully capable of covering.”

    …as if an airline doing it was no different than a public school doing it.

    I deliberately made an unequal comparison on the other end of the scale. If I want to get Chinese food, I have to enter that stereotypical atmosphere…or I can eat at a Mexican restaurant, or Italian, etc. and have a similar experience.

    Obviously, eating at a particular restaurant when I have many other choices is quite different than going on a plane where I have fewer options for getting to my destination.

    Well, there’s also a considerable difference between choosing to get on a particular plane as an adult vs. being forced to sit under a dogmatic teacher as an impressionable child.

  12. db, the point is well-taken but the “unequal comparison” falls short to my mind. There is a vast y different
    Sent from my iPad

  13. Let’s try this again. 🙂

    The point is well taken but the comparison between inserting religion in either context and cultural symbols at a restaurant that centers on ethnic food and uses those ethnic symbols does not.
    At the same time, yes, there is a vast difference between a commercial airline and a school but I didn’t say an airline doing it was no different than a school. I did say, and stand by the statement, that we don’t need either one entering into this arena.

  14. Well, technically, the dragon was a religious symbol to an ancient Chinese generation and some people may still take fortune cookies seriously for all I know…but none of that was the point.

    I prefer to let businesses operate as they choose and let customers respond however they choose.

    I don’t care for tackiness, but it’s just as much the right of a business to be tacky as it is for me or you to be tacky individuals.

    I see no reason to get bent out of shape because it happened to be an airline doing it or any reason to celebrate that they stopped. My barber plays Christian videos while I get my hair cut which doesn’t bother me, naturally, but I’m not bothered by Mexican television playing while I patronize other businesses either. Religious or not, many businesses subject you to their preferences.

    Random quirks, good or bad, make life more interesting.

    Alaskan Airlines used to have one of those interesting quirks people could remember them by and talk about. Now they’re just as vanilla as any other airline.

  15. Sure … but imagine if the bank in downtown wherever started handing out Muslim pamphlets with ever check cashed or whatever.  You would have death threats, picketing from around the country, and so on.  There is a strong enough Christian bias in this country supported at all levels regardless of how the Fox news folks like to whine about things …

  16. You would also have market forces at work here as well. Those patrons offended by the stance of the bank would withdraw their funds and the bank would lose money and go out of business. A successful business will respond to the needs of its market and adapt.

  17. thenikjones | January 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |

    Dan, you said:
    “That is offensive. As is, to my mind, the fact that the cards refer to the Diety using the masculine singular “HE”.”

    Isn’t this common? Checked the Online King James’ bible and that text also uses him [albeit not capitalised]. Are the verses different in the Hebrew Bible?

    Genuine question, by the way, I’m interested to know if diffreent religions translate the Old Testament in different ways.

  18. You are absolutely correct, it is common but I have worked hard to move away from it. In fact, my synagogue uses a non-gender specific prayerbook.
    The problem is two-fold. First, we still live in a male-dominated world in which many (most?) people who envision the deity do so as being male. What message does that send? (Especially to young girls?) But if the deity is the deity the deity is beyond gender and using gender-specific language to make a reference limits things.
    That leads to the second issue that creates the situation. Hebrew, like so many other languages, is a gender-specific language. There are male and female nouns and verbs from a grammatical perspective. If you are referring to a group of women the female form of the verb is used in a sentence. If referring to a group of males the male form of the verb would be used. AND, get this, (and remember, I didn’t make the grammatical rules) if you have a room with 1000 women and one male the male form of the verb is used. Since there is no non-gendered way to refer to the deity the male form is usually used and then, when translated, is also translated in a gender exclusive manner.
    As an egalitarian I won’t ever use gender-specific language in this context. It doesn’t work for me theologically, socially or morally.

  19. Think of the world when the King James Bible was released … very different than now.  Like Dan says, these translations were made in certain ways because when given the choice the assumption of male dominance was made 100% of the time.

    That is fine in the context of those translations – but where I have an issue is when people today use the ancient translations in an attempt to rationalize or justify the subjugation of women, or racism, or other bias …

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