Cathay Pacific Airways has dismissed three flight attendants following a complaint accusing them of discriminating against non-English speaking passengers. The decision came after an audio clip capturing the cabin crew seemingly mocking passengers went viral.
The Hong Kong-based carrier initiated an internal investigation and issued an apology for the incident, acknowledging the widespread concern it caused. Chinese state media criticized the airline, alleging that it held a contemptuous attitude towards mainland Chinese individuals.
The incident originated from a passenger traveling from Chengdu to Hong Kong who claimed that the cabin crew ridiculed passengers who mistakenly requested a “carpet” instead of a “blanket.”
In the audio clip, a flight attendant can be heard laughing as she tells her colleagues, “If you cannot say blanket in English, you cannot have it. Carpet is on the floor.”
The incident received significant backlash on Chinese social media, with some users calling for a boycott of Cathay Pacific. Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee expressed his concern, stating that the incident had hurt the sentiments of both Hong Kong and mainland compatriots.
Cathay Pacific CEO Ronald Lam apologized for the incident and personally committed to leading a task force to review the company’s code of conduct.
The airline has been striving to recover financially as pandemic restrictions ease in the territory. Cathay Pacific faced substantial losses due to stringent quarantine measures and border closures, resulting in significant job cuts during the peak of the pandemic in 2020.
Given the airline’s heavy reliance on China, a critical market for both inbound travel to Hong Kong and transit traffic, it cannot afford to alienate Chinese customers, according to Greg Waldron, an aerospace industry expert.
Major global brands, including H&M, Nike, Adidas, and Puma, have previously faced social media backlash in China over cultural insensitivity or involvement in political controversies.
The strained diplomatic relationship between Hong Kong and China has been exacerbated since 2019, following mass protests triggered by an extradition bill proposed by Beijing. The subsequent passing of a controversial national security law by China intensified tensions and drew criticism regarding the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Language and ideological differences frequently serve as flashpoints between Hong Kong and China, according to Carolyn Cartier, a professor of Asian studies. Speaking Cantonese is often viewed as a symbol of loyalty to Hong Kong’s culture, and those who display an understanding of the culture and embrace cosmopolitanism are regarded favorably.
Cathay Pacific’s response to the discrimination complaint highlights the delicate balance the airline must strike as it navigates the sensitive landscape between Hong Kong and China, recognizing the significance of its Chinese customer base.