Lufthansa CEO Meets and Apologizes to Barred Jewish Passenger

By Reuvain Borchardt

R-L: Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr meeting with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Mordechai Yormark, one of more than 100 Jews who were banned from a flight earlier this month, Thursday at Smith’s office in Washington.

NEW YORK — Lufthansa airline continued to apologize for banning around 150 Orthodox Jews from a flight due to some of them having not complied with mask rules, as airline officials met with a Lakewood Congressman and a banned passenger, and planned to also meet with the head of Agudath Israel.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, along with other Lufthansa officials and attorneys, met Thursday with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), as well as Lakewood resident Mordechai Yormark, one of the barred passengers, and Chaplain Yaakov Wenger of the National Chaplains Association.

“They said they are very sorry about what happened, that it should not have happened,” Yormark told Hamodia, describing the meeting, which was held in Smith’s Washington office. “They said that if they couldn’t pick out who were the non-compliant passengers, they should have canceled the whole flight, rather than only banning the Jews.”

The incident occurred May 4, when about 150 Jews — which included two separate travel groups and a number of individuals — were banned from a connecting flight from Frankfurt to Budapest, ostensibly because they had failed to wear masks on the first leg of the journey, from New York to Frankfurt, as German law requires. Non-Jewish passengers were permitted to take the connecting flight.

But Jewish passengers interviewed by Hamodia say the vast majority had followed Lufthansa’s mask rules, with perhaps just one or two having been noncompliant, and that banning all Jews from the flight constituted antisemitism.

An initial statement by Lufthansa rejected allegations of antisemitism, and stated, “We confirm that a larger group of passengers could not be carried today on Lufthansa flight LH1334 from Frankfurt to Budapest, because the travelers refused to wear the legally mandated mask (medical mask) on board,” but did not admit that compliant passengers had also been barred.

The incident ignited a torrent of media coverage and outrage from Jewish groups, particularly after the website DansDeals publicized a video on May 8th of a Lufthansa agent explicitly saying that “everybody has to pay for a couple,” and that “Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems.”

On May 10th, amid widespread condemnation, Lufthansa released a statement which apologized and acknowledged that not all barred passengers had broken rules.

In the statement, Lufthansa said “numerous” passengers had broken mask guidelines, and for the first time alleged that passengers had engaged in additional violations of “non-compliance …[of] crew-safety instructions,” namely standing in aisles and congregating in front of lavatories. But multiple passengers who spoke with Hamodia said that permission had in fact been given to stand during prayer.

The statement drew criticism from some Jewish groups as an inadequate apology, as it failed to identify the banned passengers as Jews and continued to call them as a “group,” despite many of them having traveled separately from each other.

Spohr subsequently held a virtual meeting with Berlin Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal, in which Spohr apologized. Rabbi Teichtal told Hamodia that Spohr had also said the employees involved were suspended “until the matter is cleared.”

Rep. Smith subsequently sent a letter to Spohr requesting a meeting, which was held Thursday.

Yormark says the Lufthansa officials at the meeting “wanted to hear my side of the story” and said that “they would investigate from beginning to end to determine the chain of events. They said that there was definitely a mask issue and a lot of people congregating by bathrooms, which I didn’t see.”

Yormark says that “I and everyone around me” wore a mask throughout the flight and did not congregate in the aisles, but had prayed while seated.

L-R: U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, banned passenger Mordechai Yormark Chaplain Yaakov Wenger, and Frank Naeve, senior Lufthansa executive in the Americas region, at Smith’s Washington office Thursday.

Smith’s office did not respond to Hamodia’s request for comment, but Yormark said that at the meeting, the Congressman “wanted to know what type of investigation would be held, would it be open and unbiased. And he emphasized that he would be keeping a close eye on it.”

“They knew they had done something wrong, that they had committed an injustice,” Yormark says. “I feel like they will do a real investigation.”

Lufthansa would not provide details to Hamodia on the meeting, saying only, “We thank Representative Chris Smith for the thoughtful and open discussion with Lufthansa Chairman & CEO Carsten Spohr.”

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, sent two letters to Spohr in the days folowng the incident, first expressing concern over the incident and requesting an investigation, and then sharply criticizing Lufthansa’s May 10th apology. In both letters, Rabbi Zwiebel asked for a meeting with a Lufthansa official, and on Wednesday, Spohr responded with a letter saying, “Our most senior executive in the Americas region, Frank Naeve, who resides in New York, [will] reach out to you to arrange for a personal meeting.”

In the letter, Spohr said he would take “this opportunity to personally apologize to the members of the Jewish Community who … were unfortunately denied boarding.” Spohr wrote that the airline is “conducting a thorough investigation at my direction to assure that this regrettable event will never happen again.”

“As an airline proud of its role in connecting cultures and people as well as serving Jewish communities globally, we recognize that what transpired that morning in Frankfurt was not consistent with our commitment to being a trusted partner and that it should never have happened. The cornerstones of our ethos are tolerance, openness and a desire to make this world smaller,” Spohr wrote.

“Our intention is to continue being a key partner for the Jewish community in New York and globally as we have been for over six decades. I am hopeful that our open channels will continue to build bridges on both sides of the Atlantic and that you see this regrettable occurrence as an isolated deviation from our path, one from where we will not diverge and fail our customers again.”

In his reply to Spohr on Thursday, Rabbi Zwiebel wrote , “I appreciate both the tone and substance of your letter, and I especially appreciate the personal nature of your apology,” and that “it is reassuring to know that Lufthansa, under your personal direction, is conducting a thorough investigation.”

While Naeve, the New York-based Lufthansa executive, had reached out to Rabbi Zwiebel and offered to meet next week, Rabbi Zwiebel said the meeting “would be more fruitful were it to take place after Lufthansa concludes its internal investigation.”

Approximately 100 of the banned passengers are joining for a lawsuit against Lufthansa, in which they will be represented by attorney Mark Goldfeder of the American Center for Law and Justice, a pro-religious-liberties law firm.

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