Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific has fired three cabin crew members accused of discriminating against non-English speakers on a flight departing from the mainland Chinese city of Chengdu.

Cathay Pacific plane grounded travel airplane
Cathay Pacific planes. File Photo: GovHK.

The airline’s CEO Ronald Lam said in a statement on Tuesday night that the airline had concluded its investigation into the incident that allegedly occurred on Sunday, and that he would “personally lead a cross-departmental taskforce” to enhance service quality.

“We need to ensure that all Cathay Pacific employees must at all times respect customers from different backgrounds and cultures, and that we provide quality services consistently across all markets that we serve,” Lam said, adding that he extended his “sincerest apologies.”

The move came soon after a post on Chinese social media platform Weibo alleged that some crew members on the flight from Chengdu had insulted non-English speakers after a passenger mixed up the words “carpet” and “blanket” while speaking to a flight attendant.

In a 31-second recording shared on Weibo, somebody – believed to be a flight attendant – is heard saying in English “if you cannot say ‘blanket’ in English, you cannot have it.”

“Carpet is on the floor,” a voice is also heard saying.

cathay CEO
Cathay Pacific CEO Ronald Lam. Photo: Cathay Pacific.

The CEO said the airline had a “zero-tolerance approach” to serious breaches of the company’s policies and code of conduct.

“There is no compromise for such violation,” Lam said.

Chief Executive John Lee said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that he was “extremely outraged and disappointed” by the cabin crew members’ “disrepect” towards mainland Chinese passengers.

“This disrespectful act hurt the feelings of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese compatriots and damaged Hong Kong’s long-standing culture and values of respect, courtesy and harmony,” Lee said.

He added that Cathay needed to review its training and service quality, and that such incidents would not be tolerated.

Three apologies in two days

Lam’s statement followed two earlier apologies made by Cathay Pacific on Weibo on Monday and Tuesday, which said that the airline was “deeply concerned” about the incident.

Weibo. File photo: Flickr.

In the second statement, the carrier said it had already suspended the “relevant cabin crew members.”

By Wednesday morning, Lam’s apology had attracted around 15,000 comments from Weibo users, with some claiming the incident was not an isolated one.

“There has been systemic discrimination against Mandarin-speaking passengers over the past 10 years. Is an apology even useful?” one comment read.

Another said: “It is more than just these three people at Cathay Pacific [who are discriminatory].”

All of the airline’s statements related to the incident were only made available in Simplified Chinese on Weibo, and were not published on its other social media platforms.

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

Cathay Pacific was hit hard during the Covid-19 outbreak as the city maintained strict travel restrictions and imposed mandatory quarantine on arrivals, including for cabin crew.

The airline slashed its workforce by close to a quarter during the first year of the pandemic.

With travel restrictions easing and the gradual resumption of flights to pre-pandemic levels, however, flight attendants have complained about long working hours and allowance cuts.

The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union threatened industrial action last December, and in January announced that it had started a “work-to-rule” campaign, a form of protest where employees do only what is required in their contracts and nothing more.

It is unclear if the action has affected the airline’s operations.

‘Huge pressure and extreme fear’

In response to the firings, the union said in a statement on Wednesday that cabin crew members had “always respected and treated all passengers from different countries equally.”

Cathay Pacific
A Cathay Pacific aircraft. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

It added that the company had been ignoring staff concerns about insufficient manpower and heavy workload since restarting flights after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, resulting in “extremely low” morale among cabin crew.

“Nothing comes from nothing,” the statement read. “The Union urges the company to address the problem at its root cause, rebuild a reasonable and safe work environment, and hence to improve employee morale.”

The group added that people online were calling for passengers to “provoke and record the behaviour of crew members.”

“This action seriously disturbs crew members’ work,” the union wrote. “The Union publicly requests the company to provide clear guidelines on how to protect frontline cabin crew members from unreasonable interference and successfully complete all flight services.”

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.