Cathay Pacific fires cabin crew for allegedly discriminating passenger on flight from China

hong kong

Cathay Pacific Airways said on Tuesday it had fired three cabin crew members after a passenger complained of discrimination on a flight from mainland China, an incident that angered Hong Kong officials and underscored the pressure on the city’s airline to please Beijing.

An audio clip of the incident went viral this week, in which a crew member appears to deny a passenger’s request for a blanket and mocks the traveler’s lack of English.

“If you can’t say cover in English, you can’t have it,” says a voice in the clip, recorded on a Cathay flight to Hong Kong from the southwestern city of Chengdu on Sunday.

In a statement late Tuesday announcing the layoffs, Cathay Pacific (CPCAY) CEO Ronald Lam said he would personally lead a task force to improve service and prevent similar incidents in the future.

“We need to ensure that all Cathay Pacific employees respect customers from different backgrounds and cultures at all times, and that we deliver quality services consistently in all of the markets we serve.” he declares.

“I want to reiterate our zero tolerance approach to any serious violation of company policies and code of conduct. There is no compromise for such violations.

The topic was trending for a second straight day on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, on Wednesday, with a hashtag about layoffs receiving 320 million views. Many Chinese social media users also shared their own complaints about the flight with the airline.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee intervened, calling the incident “extremely outrageous and disappointing”, and adding that it had damaged the city’s image.

The incident resurfaced old tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China, while Cathay’s swift and decisive response underscored the tightrope its leaders must walk to keep Beijing happy, just years after a crisis led to the exit of two senior executives.

In 2019, some Cathay staff took part in major pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, forcing the airline to respond to angry calls from the Chinese government. More than a thousand of its employees also participated in a strike that forced the carrier to cancel dozens of flights.

Beijing responded at the time, saying it would not allow crewed Cathay flights of anyone who participated in the protests to enter Chinese airspace. Cathay management has also pledged to fire any staff who join the protests.

The headaches eventually led to the departure of Cathay’s CEO and chief commercial officer.

Mainland China remains hugely important to the carrier, not just as an aviation market, but as a financial lifeline.

Air China (AIRYY), the flag carrier, is Cathay’s second largest shareholder, with a stake of around 20%. Cathay is also an investor in Air China (AIRYY), owning around 16% of its shares.

Some mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, a former British colony where most people speak Cantonese, have long complained of discrimination against them for speaking Mandarin, China’s national language.

And Cathay has become emblematic of the pressure Hong Kong-based businesses are under as Beijing tightens its grip on the city.

This was seen on Tuesday as Chinese state media slammed the airline, which is owned by Swire Pacific (SWRAY), a conglomerate with roots in Hong Kong and the UK.

“Its corporate culture seems to retain some form of admiration for foreigners, relative respect for Hong Kongers and contempt for mainland Chinese,” a People’s Daily editorial said.

“In Hong Kong, China, the reverse trend of revering English and despising Mandarin will soon be lost to history.”

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency suggested there could be further consequences for the airline.

In an op-ed, he said there was “a question mark over how far Cathay Pacific can fly if its old problems remain unchanged”.


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