On his first flight after a short-term missions trip to Costa Rica, American Airlines captain Roger Findiesen flipped on the Public Address system in the cabin and explained that flight 34 was second in line for takeoff. Then he continued on a personal note.
"I just got back from a mission," he said. "You know, they say about half of Americans are Christians. I'd just like the Christians on board to raise their hands." After a pause, he went on.
"I want everyone else on board to look around at how crazy these people are," he said jokingly. "Make good use of [the flight], or you can read your paper and watch the movie."
This caused some passengers to think they were going to die.
"Just given the history of what's happened on planes in this country, anything can happen at this point," Karla Austin told CNN yesterday. "So we weren't sure if something was going to happen at takeoff, if he was going to wait until [John F. Kennedy Airport] to do something. But there was definitely implication there that we felt that something was going to happen."
Austin said that several passengers grabbed their mobile phones or the on-plane phones after the announcement. She also claimed that it wasn't the Christians that Findiesen called crazy, but the non-Christians. Once the plane landed, Austin said, she told the pilot that "he ought to be ashamed of himself."
Apparently she wasn't the only angry passenger. About 45 minutes into the flight, Findiesen came on the PA system again. "I want to apologize for my comments earlier," he said, according to passenger Jen Dorsey. "I think I really threw the flight crew off a little bit, and they are getting a lot of flack for the things I said. So I want to apologize to my flight crew."
The comments have set off a flood of media coverage across the nation and abroad.
"Granted, probably the very last thing you'd want to hear over the public address system from the cockpit of an airplane is someone shouting, 'Allahu akbar!' which translates as 'God is great,' but also is known as a terrorist battle cry," New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey writes in today's edition. "Still, a pilot who gets on the public address and says, essentially, 'Let us all now pray to Jesus' is also sure to make more than a few passengers nervous, for any of a number of religious, cultural or strategic reasons."
Airline spokesman Tim Wagner told The Baltimore Sun that Findiesen's comments fall "somewhere between questionable judgment and inappropriate behavior," and that the airline has launched an investigation. He told The New York Times that Findiesen hasn't been suspended, but isn't "scheduled to fly for a few days."
The airline, Wagner told the Sun, has "policies in place that try to ensure that all of our customers feel comfortable when they use American Airlines. Obviously, there's a situation here where passengers feel uncomfortable with the pilot's remarks. All of that will figure into the inquiry."
Amazingly, only one publication was able to score an interview with Findiesen himself. Even more amazing, that publication is The Advocate, a gay magazine—editor-in-chief Bruce C. Steele was on the flight. Even more amazing: The Advocate's article is fair, even positive, toward Findiesen's actions.
"I just wanted to give Christians a chance to talk about why they're Christians," Findiesen told Steele (who notes that "at no time did Findiesen mention homosexuality or say anything antigay") "I obviously couldn't go back there and address everyone directly, so I used the P.A. I felt that God was telling me to say something. … There's actually no regulation against doing what I did."