Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific has apologised and suspended some cabin crew members from flying, after they were accused of discriminating against non-English-speaking passengers.

Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Airport plane flight
A Cathay Pacific plane at the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In a statement issued on Chinese microblogging site Weibo on Tuesday, the airline apologised over the “unpleasant experience” on flight CX987. It said the flying duties of the flight attendants involved were suspended while they faced an internal investigation, Cathay said.

Actions from Cathay stemmed from a complaint by a Mandarin-speaking passenger who alleged that some crew members insulted and discriminated against non-English speakers during the flight from Chengdu to Hong Kong on Sunday.

According to a post on Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu, a mainland Chinese passenger who sat near the cabin crew’s resting area overheard some flight attendants complaining in English and Cantonese shortly after she boarded the plane.

The passenger said some non-English-speaking passengers mixed up the terms “carpet” and “blanket” when they were speaking to the crew. A flight attendant allegedly said in English “if you cannot say ‘blanket’ in English, you cannot have it,” according to a 31-second audio recording shared on the app.

“Carpet is on the floor,” a voice was heard saying also in English in the same recording. The passenger said the recording was sent to Cathay as evidence for the complaint.

The statement was Cathay’s second in response to the incident. The airline issued an apology earlier on Monday evening, saying that it was “highly concerned” about the reports.

Hong Kong International tourist tourism travel Covid-19 face mask Cathay Pacific
Travellers at the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: GovHK.

Some crew members on the flight also allegedly gave an “irritable response” to other requests for assistance, the passenger claimed.

“During the whole flight, there was not a moment when I was not distressed or angry. The whole flight was two and a half hours long, and the insulting language and cynical [tone] against passengers were used for two and half hours,” the passenger wrote.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, Cathay Pacific Director Service Delivery Mandy Ng said on Tuesday that the company contacted the complainant at the earliest opportunity to understand the situation. The findings of the internal probe would be released within the coming three days, she said.

“Any speech or behaviour that violates our policies or Code of Conduct, when confirmed, will be dealt with seriously and diligently. This is our strong commitment,” Ng said.

The airline did not disclose the number of crew members involved in the incident.

‘Rectify the situation’

On Tuesday, Xiake Dao, a Weibo account affiliated with the international edition of Chinese state media People’s Daily, called on Cathay to “take strong measures to rectify the situation.” Discrimination against mainland passengers by the airline’s flight attendant was not an isolated incident, it claimed.

Cathay Pacific airplane Hong Kong International Airport flight
A Cathay Pacific airplane. Photo: GovHK.

An airline that operated globally and held “regional discrimination” against its passengers would only expose the “low quality of the company’s business,” the post on Weibo read. Such behaviour also exposed the “low cultural and professional standards” of “some people,” the account wrote.

“Cathay Pacific should not just apologise every time, but should take strong measures to rectify the situation, establish rules and regulations, and fundamentally put an end to any wrongdoing,” Xiake Dao wrote on Weibo.

The post added that in Hong Kong, “the counter-current of worshiping English and looking down on Mandarin is bound to be wiped out by the tide of history.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.