A trio of Cathay Pacific flight attendants were promptly fired after a recording went viral of them appearing to make fun of a Mandarin passenger for his poor English. Is the punishment proportionate to the crime?
Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Fired After Joking About Passenger
The incident purportedly occurred on May 21, 2023 onboard Cathay Pacific flight CX897 from Chengdu (TFU) to Hong Kong (HKG). It appears there was an exchange between a Mandarin speaker from the Mainland and a flight attendant in which the passenger asked for a “carpet” instead of a “blanket” in English.
There is no indication the flight attendant made fun of the passenger to his face, though later in the flight a group of flight attendants, presumably in the galley, were recorded talking about it.
“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.”
Here’s a recording of the alleged incident:
Cathay Pacific yesterday apologized after a passenger exposed the airline discriminating non-English speakers. An online audio revealed chats of flight attendants making fun of some passengers: “If you cannot say blanket in English, you can not have it.” @cathaypacific pic.twitter.com/SU2tTVd9jk
— Yicai Global 第一财经 (@yicaichina) May 23, 2023
A lot of unknowns here. Did the passenger attempt to speak in English or Cantonese or was the flight attendant making fun of his Mandarin? (Many have made deductions, but this is not been 100% established) When and where was this recording actually taken?
When the recording went viral on Chinese social media, specifically on Xiaohongshu which is a Chinese equivalent to Instagram, Cathay Pacific officials promised a swift three-day investigation but ended up firing the flight attendants just one day later.
Even Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee got involved, posting on Facebook:
“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.”
I’m not sure three flight attendants have that much power. Cathay Pacific executives also groveled on social media, but Mainland social media users and state-run news agencies label this as a pandemic (oh, the irony).
Holding Flight Attendants Accountable
Let’s assume (and this is an assumption) that the recording is real and occurred onboard. If true, there is no defense for making fun of a passenger when in a customer-facing role (at least doing so within earshot of other passengers). This is poor customer service and therefore sacking the flight attendants involved does seem proportionate.
This is particularly touchy issue in China and with Hong Kong and the Mainland now closer than ever, citizens of Hong Kong are well-advised to treat their Mainland compatriots with respect. More broadly, we should always treat others the way we wish to be treated.
I will say this: veteran flights attendants at Cathay Pacific have a lot to lament. Hong Kong will never be the same and the Mainland’s encroachments of civil liberties and increasing consolidation of power are sad to see (and must be even sadder to experience). Cantonese is waning. Perhaps most importantly, Cathay Pacific flight attendants were treated very poorly during Hong Kong’s obscene overreaction to the pandemic, with many struggling to survive when air traffic ground to a halt.
None of that, however, justifies the derision of another passenger onboard. However, let’s not pretend this occurred in a vacuum.
My Personal “Mainland” Experience On Cathay Pacific
I have a personal anecdote to add that informs my viewpoint on this. Years ago, before the pandemic and even before the Mainland’s crackdown in Hong Kong, I flew Cathay Pacific on a flight from Mainland China to Hong Kong.
On that flight, while taking meal orders, a flight attendant said, “Nothing good comes from the Mainland.” The context was the choice of food and drink, but the implication was clear. I’ll never forget that statement.
The people of Hong Kong are proud. Many don’t like the new sheriff in town and this is hardly a new sentiment.
A trio of flight attendants have been fired for mocking a Mandarin passenger for his poor English. Indeed, such poor customer service is intolerable and if true, the consequences do seem reasonable.
Even so, there is still a lot going on in context that helps us to understand why a flight attendant at Cathay pacific may have made that statement. It doesn’t justify it…but it does help us to understand it.
image: Cathay Pacific