cathay pacific
A Cathay Pacific plane takes off at Hong Kong airport. Image Credit: File photo

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways has dismissed three cabin crew members after a passenger accused them of discriminating against non-English speakers, in a case that drew criticism from Chinese state media.

Airline CEO Ronald Lam expressed his apologies on Tuesday to the passenger and the community over the incident, which occurred on a flight from Chengdu in southwest China to Hong Kong on Sunday. He reiterated his company's “zero tolerance” of any serious breach of its policies and code of conduct.

“There is no compromise for such violations,” he said in a statement.

The sacking came after the passenger complained in an online post that some crew members were disrespectful to passengers who did not speak English or Cantonese, the language widely spoken in Hong Kong. The person, who sat near the crew's resting area, overheard them complaining about customers.

“During the whole flight, not a moment went by when I was not distressed or angry,” the passenger wrote.

In particular, the crew members made fun of other passengers who mixed up the terms “blanket” and “carpet” in English and appeared to be impatient even when someone tried to seek help in English, the post alleged.

“If you cannot say blanket in English, you cannot have it,” a person said in an audio clip posted on social media. The comment was followed by laughter. “Carpet is on the floor," the recording continued. The Associated Press could not independently verify the audio clip.

Cathay issued an apology on Monday on the Chinese social media platform Weibo for “the unpleasant experience” suffered by passengers on the flight, but failed to pacify the anger triggered by the passenger's post.

On Tuesday, a Weibo account belonging to the overseas edition of the official Chinese People's Daily newspaper sternly criticized Cathay over the incident.

“It seems that its company culture still maintains a sense of superiority that worships foreigners and respects Hong Kongers but looks down on mainlanders,” it wrote. It said the airline should rectify itself and establish rules to halt the unhealthy trend.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said he was disappointed to learn about the disrespectful acts that had damaged the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese residents. He said he had told Lam that it was a serious incident and must not repeat again.

Secretary for Transport and Logistics Lam Sai-hung said Wednesday he had expressed his deep concern to Cathay and asked the management to improve the company's services immediately. He added he was very distressed by the “inappropriate comments” made by the crew members, calling the incident as a “serious breach of Hong Kong's reputation for service excellence."

Cathay is working to rebuild its business after years of strict pandemic travel restrictions forced the airline into steep losses.

In March, it reported a loss of 6.55 billion Hong Kong dollars ($834.4 million) in 2022 — an 18.5% increase from 2021 amid strict entry restrictions for the city during the first half of last year.