Airline pushes back on racism allegation

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Airline pushes back on racism allegation


Left: Guillaume Glass, KLM general manager, second from the right, apologizes alongside other airline staff at a press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in central Seoul on Friday. Right: The controversial post on the airliner. [YONHAP]

A Dutch airline official apologized Friday for what many Koreans saw as a racist incident by a cabin crew member on a recent flight to Incheon, but also pushed back against accusations that the employee’s actions were intended to be discriminatory.

The controversy broke into the open earlier this week after a Korean passenger from a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight posted a photo on Instagram that showed a paper notice on a lavatory door handwritten with the words “Crew-only toilet” in Korean, but not in any other language. The flight was on its way to Incheon after departing from Amsterdam on Feb. 2.

Guillaume Glass, KLM’s general manager for Korea, Japan and New Caledonia expressed “sincere apologies to all passengers who were offended by the operation,” during a press conference.

But he also ruled out the possibility of racial discrimination of its staff, saying it was a “human mistake.”

According to the passenger, a member of the cabin crew came up to her as she took the photo, and told her to delete it. The employee told the passenger that the lavatory restriction was a preventive measure intended to protect the cabin crew from possible exposure to the virus. He attached an English-language notice as well, but only after an argument with the passenger who later posted about the incident on Instagram.

The story caught fire online, becoming associated with reports of discrimination against other Asians amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Instagram user posted a statement outlining her version of events on Tuesday, and asked for an official apology from the airline,

“I believe all passengers on board this flight [had an] equal possibility of having been exposed to the virus,” she wrote.

In a follow-up post on Thursday, the user stated she met personally with a company official who apologized for the incident.

Among the 277 passengers on board, 144 passengers were not Korean, KLM said.

“It is not KLM policy to reserve the lavatory for crew,” Glass said. “The decision was taken by the crew, the announcement was written in Korean only, and the English version was only added after it was pointed out by a passenger. This is a human mistake and we apologize for it.”

The staff member involved in the incident was on a flight back to Amsterdam, Friday, and Glass said they will be immediately questioned by the company’s executive vice president for in-flight services upon arrival.

During a brief interview in Korea, the member had said he “simply forgot” to put up an English notice, according to the airline. He was one of the 10 Dutch cabin crew on board along with two Koreans.

Glass said a full investigation is ongoing to determine what happened and whether it was due to miscommunication among the cabin crew.

After the Instagram post went viral in Korea, the Dutch airline informed cabin crew members worldwide that staff may not reserve lavatories and shared the case to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“We would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the passengers who have been inconvenienced onboard the KLM aircraft and to the people of [South] Korea who have been offended by the incident,” Glass said.

But he strongly denied that his employees’ actions had any racial motivation.

“In my personal understanding, I cannot understand how it could be racial discrimination, because it’s not an issue regarding race. It’s a worldwide issue, and there’s more infected in Europe than in Korea,” he said. “Calling to the facts we know today, according to the answers from the crew, we don’t consider it [to be] racial discrimination.”

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