Cathay Pacific Airways said it fired three flight attendants after a passenger accused them of bias against non-English speakers, prompting criticism on Chinese state media and Hong Kong's leader to vow it wouldn't happen again.
Cathay said the experience of passengers travelling on its CX987 flight from the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu to Hong Kong on Sunday caused "widespread concern" and said it sincerely apologised.
The airline fired three flight attendants involved after an internal investigation, CEO Ronald Lam said.
"I would like to reiterate that Cathay Pacific takes a 'zero tolerance' approach to serious violations of company rules and ethics by individual employees and will not tolerate them," Lam said.
He added that he would lead a cross-departmental working group to conduct a comprehensive review of service processes, staff training and related systems to enhance its service quality.
"Most importantly, we must ensure that all Cathay Pacific staff respect passengers from different backgrounds and cultures and provide professional and consistent service in all areas served," Lam said.
A passenger on the flight from Chengdu wrote in an online post that flight attendants complained amongst themselves about passengers in English and Cantonese. They said the flight attendants made fun of others for asking for a carpet instead of a blanket in English.
"If you cannot say blanket in English, you cannot have it... Carpet is on the floor. Feel free if you want to lie on it," a flight attendant said, according to a recording that was circulated widely online. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the clip, which triggered criticism on social media.
Hong Kong's flagship carrier has been trying to rebuild itself as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. It was badly hit by COVID-related flight cancellations, border closings and strict quarantine measures for crew, resulting in drastic headcount reductions since 2020.
Hong Kong's chief executive, John Lee, said on Wednesday that the discrimination incident was serious and could not be repeated.
"The words and deeds of the flight attendants hurt the feelings of compatriots in Hong Kong and the mainland and destroyed Hong Kong's traditional culture and values of respect and courtesy," he said, according to a post on his Facebook.
Cathay's Flight Attendants Union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China's state-owned People's Daily in an online commentary said it was shocked by the incident against Mandarin-speaking passengers and criticised Cathay's corporate culture for "worshipping foreigners and respecting Hong Kong people" but looking down on Mainlanders.
"Cathay Pacific can't just apologise every time, but should rectify heavily, establish rules and regulations, and stop the unhealthy trend from the root," it said.
The newspaper went on to say that the level of Mandarin in Hong Kong is improving by "leaps and bounds".
"In Hong Kong, the reverse trend of worshipping English and looking down on Mandarin is bound to disappear," the newspaper said.