Cathay Pacific flight attendants say the company’s popular Marco Polo club frequent flyer plan and too-tight uniforms are contributing to rising instances of sexual harassment on board. Female flight attendants are harassed about once every ten flights, a flight attendant union representative estimated, thanks in part to an air of entitlement among members of the airline’s Marco Polo Club, who pay $50 to join.
“Some of the Marco Polo Club [frequent flier] members think they can do things to us because they are privileged, and we somehow allow it,” Flight Attendants Union secretary Michelle Choi told the South China Morning Post. Uniforms with tight skirts and short blouses, which flight attendants have repeatedly complained about, are also contributing to the problem, she said.
The club’s fee-based “elite” frequent flier club is considered an industry success, because it brings in revenue from fliers who get conveniences that are relatively inexpensive for the airline, like the ability to board earlier. Upgrades, the use of the company’s private airport lounges, and other top-shelf benefits are still only given to passengers who have amassed a large number of air miles and a higher Marco Polo standing.
If these members (or any passengers) harass Cathay Pacific flight attendants, the attendants have almost no way to report these incidents without severely inconveniencing everyone on the plane, and potentially delaying several other flights that day, Choi says:
When you report it to the flight manager, they always say it is the crew member’s decision whether or not to call the police. They tell you, ‘It’s your decision. Do you want to delay the flight by calling the police?’
In an emailed statement, Cathay Pacific said it took the issue “very seriously” and supports “active measures” to discourage and prevent it. “This is a society-wide issue,” the airline said, “that should be addressed by all sectors and industries.”
The complaints come after a survey earlier this year found that over one-quarter of all Hong Kong-based flight attendants had been sexually harassed while on duty in the air, and 29% while on the job the past year.
Of those who reported being sexually harassed in the past year, half of respondents (about 50 people) told Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission they reported the harassment to a senior colleague or lodged a formal complaint. What happens to those complaints after they are filed is unclear—Hong Kong’s EOC has registered just two cases of alleged sexual harassment of flight attendants since 1996, and no prosecutions.
Asia’s airlines have hired hundreds of new flight attendants in recent years, but, as Quartz previously reported, the industry has done little to dispel the old-fashioned image of the sexually-available flight attendant that has been (mostly) retired in North America and Europe. Last year, China’s low cost Spring Airlines bucked the trend, sort of, by saying it would hire married flight attendants and call them “Flight Aunties.”
Under Hong Kong law, though, sexual harassment of flight attendants remains completely legal.
Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance law, passed in 1995, makes sexual harassment illegal, but it does not apply to Hong Kong companies whose “employees work wholly or mainly outside Hong Kong.” The special administrative region’s statutes also state that customers cannot be prosecuted for sexual harassment of a company representative or employee, but employees can be prosecuted for the sexual harassment of a customer.