I’ve received a countless number of messages regarding this situation, as the story seems to have gone viral in South Korea, though it hasn’t gotten much coverage elsewhere.
Given the number of readers who have asked me to cover it, let me share the facts as I understand them, then I’ll share a few thoughts, and then I’m curious to hear what you guys think.
Why KLM is being accused of racism
A sign left on the lavatory door of a KLM 777 enroute from Amsterdam to Seoul Incheon earlier this week has caused a lot of people to call for a formal apology from KLM.
At some point during the flight a passenger noticed a sign on a lavatory door in Korean that read “cabin crew exclusive restroom.”
The primary issue is that this wasn’t written in other languages (including Dutch or English), and the passenger also feels like this should have been broadcast over the PA if it was a policy intended for all passengers.
According to the passenger who brought this situation to light, she took a picture of the sign, and then one of the flight attendants came to her seat and told her that taking photos inside the plane is banned, and told her to delete the photo.
The passenger responded by asking to see the policy stating that photos can’t be taken, and apparently that proved that the only photography that is prohibited is of crew members and other passengers without their consent.
The passenger then asked why the restroom became a “cabin crew exclusive” restroom, and the flight attendant responded by saying the following:
“According to the situation right now in Asia as you know, there are so many issues with the health. Once we protect us we protect yourselves as well, so we are healthy to do the work for you. If someone falls sick now we have a problem, and that’s why we are protecting, you understand.”
The passenger responds with the following question:
“Why it was written only in Korean?”
And the flight attendant responds:
“Because we forgot. I forgot. I told her just to write it down. And that’s it. Nothing else, nothing less. We forgot. [inaudible] I should have written in English. That’s all.”
The purser eventually shows up, and she is asked if it’s a common practice to make a crew exclusive restroom. She responds by saying:
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I think this is the third time.”
She says other cases where she did it involved MERS and SARS. In the meantime, apparently the passenger sees the flight attendant on his iPad, and says:
“I need to find out what you checked on your iPad.”
At this point he gets quite angry:
“Oh nothing to do with you, I’m not going to show to you, this is socially private. End of the conversation. I’m not going to show you my iPad. Never. Ever.”
It does seem a bit presumptuous for her to want to see what’s on the flight attendant’s iPad, all while she’s (presumably) secretly recording them.
Eventually the flight attendant finishes with the following:
“I wrote in English now for you, and we now apologize four or five different times, and that’s it. I do wish you a very nice flight, that’s all I can do.”
The flight attendant claimed that the lavatory door had been locked for most of the flight so that even those who couldn’t read the sign wouldn’t be able to access it, though when a picture was taken the lavatory wasn’t locked.
The passenger also shares the interactions with the crew on Twitter.
A few thoughts on this situation
As far as I’m concerned, there are a few different issues here. Is it okay for the crew to designate a lavatory as being only for crew? Does an announcement have to be made over the PA for that to be the case? Should the crew get the benefit of the doubt?
Is it acceptable to have a crew lavatory?
First of all, is it appropriate for crews to designate a lavatory as a crew lavatory? If so, is it acceptable under normal circumstances? If it isn’t, is it acceptable in light of the coronavirus?
Personally I don’t have an issue with an airline designating a lavatory as being exclusively for crew in general, though only if it’s an airline policy.
In extraordinary circumstances, is it okay for a crew to designate a lavatory as being crew only in light of something like the coronavirus? You guys tell me…
Does an announcement have to be made over the PA?
The passenger seems to insist that if a lavatory is designated as a crew lavatory then that needs to be announced over the PA.
That I don’t agree with, as I don’t see why that would need to be announced to all passengers. I think a sign (in multiple languages) would be sufficient.
Was the crew being racist, or should they be given the benefit of the doubt?
This is the trickiest question.
As the sign is written, I think it could reasonably come across as racist. The sign should be in multiple languages, and it totally makes sense that people would feel discriminated against if a sign like this were only written in their language.
The practical implications may have been limited if the crew did in fact lock the lavatory for most of the flight, since no one could have accessed it. The one picture we have of the door shows the lavatory being unlocked, so we don’t know if it was in fact locked for most of the flight.
That being said, I could also see how this could have been an honest mistake (which isn’t to say that it was an honest mistake, but it could have been). I could see the (Korean) language speaking flight attendant being told to write a sign indicating the lavatory could only be used by the crew, and then a miscommunication caused it to be presented as such.
It could be that the Korean flight attendant was also told to write it in English (and that was’t understood correctly), or it could be that the purser asked the Korean flight attendant to give it back so that it could still be written in other languages, but that wasn’t understood.
We don’t know. The flight attendants claim it was an honest mistake, though it seems many Koreans aren’t buying that excuse.
I can definitely see how the lavatory sign came across as being racist. The question seems to be whether this was intentional or was just an oversight.
Generally when a multi-billion dollar company makes a decision on a high level that comes across like this (as we recently saw with Royal Caribbean), I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile when we’re talking about the actions of a couple of individuals, I often do give them the benefit of the doubt.
I do think the passenger comes across as unnecessarily confrontational in some ways (telling the crew that they have to make the announcement over the PA, demanding to see what the flight attendant was looking at on his iPad, etc.), but then again, the crew seems defensive as well (demanding pictures be deleted, etc.).
What do you think?