Austrian Airlines Allows More than 8 Hasidic Men to Gather In Front of Plane to Pray: Can Muslim Men Do This Too?

Post 9/11, it's impossible to board a flight and not notice that strict restrictions are placed on passenger movement throughout a flight. This is especially true in controlling how many passengers are allowed to gather anywhere near the front of the plane. It is also a long standing practice to restrict entry into business and first class by drawing curtains intended to block entry.

Anyone who is not asleep during a flight has noticed that anytime more than one person approaches the front of the plane, even to use the bathroom, you are asked to return to your seat.

In today's world, flight crews take no risk in allowing people to just linger anywhere near the front of the plane.

But on Father's Day, June 16, 2013, on Austrian Airline flight 088, departing JFK for Vienna at 5:40 pm, the security protocol we have all come to expect was violated.

Within minutes after the flight reached cruising altitude, men seated throughout economy class, started to stream into the curtained-off business section.

First, one man entered. After a few minutes, he returned to his seat in economy. But moments later, another man, dressed just like him, in Hasidic attire, left his seat, approached the business cabin, carefully pulled the curtain aside and slipped in. Many minutes passed before he tip toed out and returned to his seat.

This pattern repeated itself until all the Hasidic men seated in rows located in front of me had completed their entry and exit. At first, I thought that, against rules and standard practice, they were availing themselves of the toilet located in the business section. But as they entered and exited, I could see that there was no indication that the bathrooms were occupied. So what were they doing?

Interspersed between entering and leaving the business cabin, with no flight attendant in sight, two of the younger Hasidic men, appearing to be less than 30-years-old, took turns looking toward the back of the plane, like they were waiting for someone to come from the rear.

As this odd behavior was repeated over and over again, it seemingly went unnoticed by flight attendants gathered at the back of the plane preparing to serve dinner. As more men sneaked into business class, I could see that no flight attendants were present in that section either.

The men stopped their incursions into business class and stopped looking to the rear as the crew emerged with their carts ready to serve dinner.

Once everyone completed dinner and all trays were collected -- and coffee and tea served, with attendants busy storing the food carts -- men from the rear began to enter business class. They did not come all at once. First one entered, followed a few moments later by another man, than another, and another, and another, and this continued for several minutes. But this time, none of the men were leaving the business cabin. Even more men emerged from the rear. All pulled the curtain aside and entered. I could see that they were gathering in an area between business and first class.

I asked to speak to the purser -- the person who is essentially the senior manager of the cabin flight crew. She explained that seated in business was a head rabbi and that the Hasidim had apparently written Austrian Airlines requesting permission to gather as a group during the flight to pray. Request had been granted.

I pointed out to her that in all the years I have traveled internationally, I have never seen economy passengers permitted to enter and exist business class at will. She conceded that this was not allowed and that her flight crew should not allow it to happen in this instance either. So why were the Hasadim permitted to do it? I wanted to know.

I asked her what would happen if Muslim men, seated throughout economy class, started to enter and exit business class at will? I wanted to know if Muslim men too would be granted permission to gather as a large group, in flight, to pray? Would Austrian Airlines allow a Imam and his followers to pray as a group of eight or more near the front of the plane with no flight attendant in sight? I want to know.