Airline CEO apologizes for pilot's talk on religion

'Thorough investigation' promised

passenger tells of explanation given him

February 14, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Perhaps it was just a mechanical glitch that caused the brakes on American Airlines Flight 34 to temporarily malfunction and, moments later, start up again - just in time for takeoff.

But Capt. Rodger K. Findiesen seemed to think something more was at work. Whatever the cause, the Annapolis pilot's spiritual zeal was aroused that day at Los Angeles International Airport, one passenger recalls.

Bruce C. Steele, a journalist traveling for business on the New York-bound flight, spoke to Findiesen after the plane landed about why he asked Christian passengers to raise their hands and share their faith. Steele said the pilot told him he was inspired after the brakes "cleared up without explanation."

"He told me that he felt God had been telling him to say something," said Steele, editor of The Advocate, a national magazine that covers the gay community. After the brakes flipped back on, Steele recalled the pilot saying, "He felt he finally had the courage to do so."

Findiesen, who had just returned from a mission to Costa Rica, has been making international headlines since he came over the intercom on a flight Feb. 6 and shared his religious enthusiasm with passengers.

Yesterday, Gerard J. Arpey, chief executive officer of AMR Corp., parent company of American Airlines, apologized for the incident. "Let me assure you that we take this very seriously and are conducting a thorough investigation," Arpey wrote to Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Suspended from flying pending an investigation by the airline, Findiesen has declined interview requests. In a recent e-mail message to a Sun reporter, he wrote: "Jesus said, `Let your no mean no' and my `no comment' to you means exactly that."

The Rev. Byron Brought, pastor of Calvary United Church in Annapolis, where Findiesen is a member, declined to comment.

While Findiesen remains silent, his actions have ignited a debate on religious expression - one that's being played out in the news, on the Internet and in conversations among religious leaders. As of yesterday, a chat room devoted to news events called plastic.com listed more than 150 comments. The New York Times ran an editorial on Findiesen under the headline "This is your Proselytizer Speaking."

According to news reports, Findiessen's voice came over the intercom while Flight 34 waited on the tarmac in Los Angeles. Instead of offering passengers details on flight times or weather conditions, he noted a statistic - that more than half of the country is Christian - before asking Christians in the cabin to identify themselves. Finally, he was quoted as saying: "You can use your time wisely on this flight, or you can sit back and watch the movie."

An airline spokesman said it will look further into the nature of Findiesen's statements, in particular his use of the word "crazy." Some passengers reportedly said the pilot called non-Christians "crazy." Steele said he thought Findiesen meant that the Christian passengers were "crazy" for raising their hands.

"I was definitely made to feel nervous, as were a lot of the people around me," said passenger Amanda Nelligan of Los Angeles.

On Monday, leaders of the Washington-based National Clergy Council held a telephone conference to discuss Findiesen's actions. That day, the council faxed a letter to the airline asking that its investigation of Findiesen be fair.

"Our position is not so much in defense of the pilot, but rather it is to caution American Airlines not to play into what we see as a growing anxiety over public conversations on religious topics," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, council president.

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, until recently the director of ecumenical and interfaith work for the United Methodist Church, took a different stance.

"To take a captive audience in a plane and use that as a position to advocate for a particular faith seems problematic, regardless of the sincerity of the pilot," Robbins said. "To me, at a time of such heightened sensitivity about personal security and advocacy of positions of faith, a pilot should do all he can to put passengers at ease."

After learning that he had spooked some passengers, Findiesen expressed regrets to the flight crew and invited passengers to share their concerns when the plane touched down in New York. So Steele did.

Standing by the cockpit in what Steele described as an "upright, but at-ease, military position," Findiesen did not express regret for his actions.

"I think he was sort of proud," Steele said. "He followed through with what he thought was a mandate from God."

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