Cathay Pacific Airways has fired three flight attendants after a complaint of discrimination against non-English speaking passengers.
This after an audio clip of cabin crew apparently mocking passengers on a Sunday flight went viral.
The Hong Kong carrier acted after an internal investigation and apologized for causing “widespread concern”.
Chinese state media claimed the airline “despises mainland Chinese”.
A passenger traveling from Chengdu to Hong Kong had accused cabin crew of mocking passengers who mistakenly requested a “mat” instead of a “blanket”.
In the audio clip, a stewardess can be heard laughing as she tells her colleagues, “If you can’t say cover in English, you can’t have it. The carpet is on the floor. ”
The incident drew widespread criticism on social media in China, with some users calling for a boycott of Cathay Pacific.
Hong Kong chief executive John Lee also said the incident had “hurt the feelings of compatriots in Hong Kong and on the mainland”.
Struggling to recover
Airline CEO Ronald Lam apologized for the incident and said he would personally lead a task force to conduct a review of the company’s code of conduct.
Cathay Pacific has attempted to return to profit as the territory removes the last remaining pandemic restrictions.
In this regard, it cannot afford to alienate China, says Greg Waldron, who covers the aerospace industry at online aviation news site FlightGlobal.
“Cathay relies heavily on China, which is a key market for the business for both inbound travel to Hong Kong, as well as transit traffic to Cathay’s wider network,” he said. at the BBC.
Major brands such as H&M, Nike, Adidas and Puma have all felt the brunt of backlash fueled by social media in China due to cultural insensitivities or political controversies.
“Anyone who offends the Chinese people should be prepared to pay the price,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in 2021 when asked about Western companies that have been subject to boycotts after they expressed concern over allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.
Relations between Hong Kong and China have also been strained since 2019, when mass protests tore through the territory over a Beijing-proposed extradition bill that would allow suspects from the financial city to be sent to China for trial.
Beijing said the law was needed to bring stability to the city. Critics said it was designed to crush dissent and weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Carolyn Cartier, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Technology Sydney, says it’s typical for flashpoints between Hong Kong and China to revolve around language and differences in political beliefs.
Professor Cartier, who travels to both places frequently for work, said speaking Cantonese was seen as a “symbol of loyalty to Hong Kong culture”.
“Hong Hong is considered a glitzy and glamorous financial hub,” she told the BBC. “It’s not so much about who is from Hong Kong or China. It’s about who is savvy enough to learn about the culture and who is cosmopolitan enough to be there.”