Cathay Pacific Airways said 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 flag carrier to please Beijing.
An audio clip of the incident went viral this week, in which a crew member appears to refuse a passenger’s request for a blanket and mocks the traveler’s lack of English.
“If you can’t say blanket in English, you cannot have it,” a voice is heard saying in the clip, recorded Sunday on a Cathay flight to Hong Kong from the southwestern city of Chengdu.
In a statement late Tuesday announcing the dismissals, Cathay Pacific
(CPCAY) CEO Ronald Lam said he would personally lead a task force to improve service and avoid similar incidents in the future.
“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,” he said.
“I would like to reiterate our zero-tolerance approach to any serious breach of the company’s policies and code of conduct. There is no compromise for such violations.”
As of Wednesday, the topic was trending for a second straight day on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, with a hashtag about the firings receiving 320 million views. Many Chinese social media users also shared their own complaints about flying with the airline.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee weighed in, calling the incident “extremely outrageous and disappointing,” and adding it had damaged the city’s image.
The incident resurfaced old tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China, while Cathay’s quick and decisive response underlined the tightrope its executives must walk to keep Beijing happy, just a few years after a crisis led to the exit of two top managers.
In 2019, some Cathay staff took part in Hong Kong’s major pro-democracy protests, forcing the airline to field 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 by saying it would not allow Cathay flights crewed by anyone who’d taken part in the protests to enter China’s airspace. Cathay management also vowed to fire any staff found to be joining the demonstrations.
The headaches ultimately led to the departures of both Cathay’s CEO and its chief commercial officer.
Mainland China remains deeply important for the carrier, not just as an aviation market but as a financial lifeline.
(AIRYY), the country’s flag carrier, is Cathay’s second-biggest shareholder, with an approximately 20% stake. Cathay is also an investor in Air China
(AIRYY), holding roughly 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 face as Beijing tightens its grip on the city.
This was seen Tuesday, as Chinese state media piled onto criticism of the airline, which is owned by Swire Pacific
(SWRAY), a conglomerate with roots in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.
“Its corporate culture seems to retain a certain kind of admiration for foreigners, relative respect for Hong Kong people and contempt for mainland Chinese people,” an editorial in state-run People’s Daily said.
“In China’s Hong Kong, the reverse trend of worshiping English and looking down on Mandarin is bound to be soon lost in the tide of history.”
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua suggested there could be further consequences for the airline.
In an editorial, it said there was “a question mark on how far Cathay Pacific can fly if their old problems remain unchanged.”
— CNN’s Nectar Gan and Chris Lau contributed to this report.