Social media’s role in bringing about progressive change is a hot topic in the Middle East as much as, if not more than, elsewhere given the ongoing debate about its use in the Arab uprisings. On a collective level it is hard to gauge due to the multitude of factors that contribute to people taking to the streets — mass demonstrations can and of course have happened without any social media — but when it comes to smaller, localized events social media’s power is clear. The online exposure last month of a Middle East Airlines (MEA) employee’s racist remarks toward Asian passengers is a clear case, and one that other companies should take heed of if they don’t want their name or brand dragged through the mud.
In early October, passengers were waiting in Rafiq Hariri International Airport at a departure gate for a flight to Dubai, including a group of Nepalese women, when a MEA employee got on the public announcement system and said, “Filipino people, stop talking.” The woman told the “Filipinos” to stop talking twice more, giggling as she did so and goaded on by a male colleague.
The incident outraged fellow passenger Abed Shaheen, who tried unsuccessfully to make a complaint. In the past Shaheen might have told just family, friends and colleagues about the incident, and his complaints would have had minimal if any effect. In our new world of social media, Shaheen wrote about the experience on Facebook and Twitter. The story was quickly shared and within three days 1,600 people had signed a petition on change.org, calling for “MEA to apologize publicly for their staff’s behavior.”
The media promptly picked up the story as well, initially in Lebanon and then abroad. Under fire, MEA eventually came out to say they had launched an investigation, and the employee was first “disciplined,” then reportedly fired.
While justice has arguably been done, and a strong message sent to MEA staff to think before they speak, MEA’s reputation has been negatively impacted. A scroll through the 200 plus comments following the airline’s apology on its Facebook page shows a great deal of animosity toward MEA: “service sucks,” “airline crew impolite” and, more worryingly for the carrier in these difficult financial times, is the number of people that wrote they would “vote with their feet” by no longer flying with MEA. Judging from the comments, many Lebanese opt for MEA out of solidarity with the nation’s carrier, despite its invariably higher ticket price. But patriotism only goes so far, and this incident will no doubt lose the airline old as well as potentially new passengers.
MEA, and subsidiary MEAG that runs the airport, say they have gone beyond “damage control” mode and made effective changes that can be immediately seen; this includes mandating that staff be trained to treat everyone equally and respectfully, as paying customers. Numerous times on flights to the Gulf and East Africa, acquaintances and I have seen African and Asian passengers seated together at the back of the plane away from passengers despite numerous seats being available. This happens too often to be coincidence and the check-in staff, by designating seats in this way, creates segregation. Such a policy is racist, and even more insulting when it occurs on the national airline of the segregated passengers, such as Ethiopian Airlines. This has to change.
Then there is the small boxy room that domestic workers are forced to wait in upon arrival at Beirut airport until their new employers come to collect them, rather than being met like everybody else in the arrivals lounge. It is reminiscent of a prison with inmates awaiting bail. For many of these women, it is the first time out of their country; they are unsure, scared perhaps about what’s next, and they should be treated in a more dignified manner. Both MEA and the airport are, after all, people’s first impressions of the country, no matter where a passenger is from, and customer service should reflect that.
Ultimately, MEA has now put itself under the spotlight of social media, and activists will be on the lookout for further misdemeanors. It is a useful lesson for MEA to change its policies and better manage employee behavior, as well as for other companies to realize the power of social media to hold them to account.
Paul Cochrane is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services