Hong Kong’s leader joined state media in blasting Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. over an incident where flight attendants were recorded making disparaging remarks about mainland Chinese passengers.
“I am outraged and disappointed that these bad words and deeds happened on a Hong Kong flight,” John Lee said Wednesday at an event in southern China’s Guangdong province. He said the carrier’s crew members had “hurt the feelings of compatriots in Hong Kong and the mainland” and that he’d spoken to Cathay Chief Executive Officer Ronald Lam to express his concern.
A crew member on a Sunday flight from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Hong Kong was recorded allegedly saying that if passengers couldn’t say “blanket” in English, they shouldn’t have one. The comments are followed by laughter in the background.
As criticism over the comments grew, Cathay said Tuesday it would investigate the incident, before quickly announcing it had fired three flight attendants. Lam apologized in a statement to the affected passengers and vowed “zero tolerance” for violations of company rules and standards. Hong Kong’s flagship airline is controlled by British conglomerate Swire Pacific Ltd.
A Weibo account under the People’s Daily overseas edition lashed out at the airline in an online post late Tuesday, saying that Hong Kong is part of China and needs China’s support. Xinhua News Agency said that if Cathay doesn’t get rid of its “old sickness” it “wont fly far.”
A hashtag about Cathay’s apology was one of the top-trending topics on Weibo, with more than 190 million views in total. The subject continued to dominate the platform Wednesday, including discussions on whether people in Hong Kong discriminate against Mandarin speakers.
Bloomberg News wasn’t able to independently verify the audio file. A passenger who posted the clip on the social-media platform Xiaohongshu didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a subsequent post wrote that Cathay executives had called her to learn more about what happened on Flight 987.
It’s not the first time Cathay has been made an example of by China. The country’s aviation watchdog slapped a number of demands on the airline in August 2019 after some of its employees participated in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, drawing the ire of Beijing.
The Global Times, a newspaper published by China’s Communist Party, said at the time that the departure of then CEO Rupert Hogg might not be enough to atone for Cathay’s “lukewarm attitude” to dealing with its “radical” staff.
Hong Kong’s leader said the airline can’t allow incidents similar to what happened on the flight from Chengdu to occur again.
“Cathay Pacific needs to review training and service quality, improve customer service culture, reshape the image of hospitality with respect and courtesy, and live up to our expectations,” Lee said.
Hong Kong’s transport secretary added to the chorus, saying the incident was a “serious breach” of the city’s reputation for service excellence, longstanding values and ethical standards. Lam Sai-hung said the airline will conduct a comprehensive review in light of the incident, according to a statement Wednesday.
Cathay shares were down 1.4% at 2:40 p.m. in Hong Kong. State-run Air China Ltd. is the second-largest shareholder after Swire, with a roughly 30% stake. The Hong Kong government has two observers on Cathay’s board following a HK$39 billion ($5 billion) rescue package in 2020.
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