PHILADELPHIA - A teenage passenger using a Jewish prayer object caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert a Kentucky-bound flight to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.
A 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight 3079 from LaGuardia to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of small boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps, said Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore.
When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.
"It's something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever," FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said.
The teen explained the ritual after being questioned by crew members of the flight, which had left New York around 7:30 a.m. and was operated by Chautauqua Airlines, authorities said.
Officials with the airline, however, said crew members "did not receive a clear response" when they talked with the teen, according to a statement issued by Republic Airways, which owns Chautauqua.
"Therefore, in the interest of everyone's safety, the crew decided to land in Philadelphia, where a more complete investigation and follow-up with authorities would be possible," the statement said.
The plane landed without incident and was met by police, bomb-sniffing dogs and officials from the FBI and Transportation Security Administration.
Authorities said the plane was searched and passengers were questioned. The teen, who is from White Plains and was traveling with his sister, 16, was very cooperative, Vanore said.
"They were more alarmed than we were," Vanore said.
Klaver said the teen and his sister were never in custody.
The teen, who belongs to the congregation Young Israel of White Plains, is "a brilliant student," said Shmuel Greenberg, the synagogue's rabbi.
Rabbi Sholom Stern of Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst said that the religious ritual shouldn't be a cause for concern.
"Most airline stewards are familiar with it," Stern said. "Obviously, this one wasn't."
Binding the boxes to the arm and head serves as "a reminder for the person that their actions during the day, and what they think about during the day, should be on a level of holiness and should inspire them to do productive, good things," Greenberg said. With Keith Herbert