With corporate social responsibility (CSR) now a major part of many business practices, the airline industry is under growing pressure to provide a clean, safe, and reliable transportation service to their employees and passengers. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic posed new CSR challenges for an industry struggling to stay viable. By October 2020, the World Health Organization confirmed 30 million cases of COVID-19 and more than one million deaths worldwide. Given that researchers have shown that influenza-type diseases can spread rapidly on aircraft, airlines prioritized reliable health and safety protocols to reduce exposure to significant risks of infection by flight attendants and passengers. However, such activities require significant financial investment. Not surprisingly, the pandemic hit the airline industry hard with canceled flights, staff layoffs, and new hygiene practices for cabin crews. To make matters worse, many flight attendants were furloughed. As airlines neared bankruptcy, the industry explored ways to reduce costs, modify CSR activities (e.g., environmentally sustainable commitment), and overcome unprecedented challenges such as protecting employees and passengers against novel viruses. As they attempt to avoid bankruptcy, airlines may struggle to balance CSR activities with business viability, at least in the short term.
CSR originated in the 1950s when Bowen  used the term ‘social responsibility’ to mean “the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society” (p. 6). Often cited by theorists, Carroll  summarized CSR as a company’s commitment to being a good corporate citizen, by operating a profitable business and contributing to a greater social good. He identified four principal CSR practices that corporate organizations should follow: (a) economic—businesses should be profitable, (b) legal—they should abide by laws, rules, and regulations, (c) ethical—they should operate morally and ethically, and (d) philanthropic—they should contribute to and support the community.
Recent research confirms that well-established CSR activities can lead to a positive corporate image , improved customer satisfaction , higher purchase intentions , healthier profits, and greater trust by stakeholders . Furthermore, evidence shows that CSR can improve business relationships with communities . Thus, the key concept of CSR is that companies and communities can use CSR activities to their mutual benefit.
Although Carroll’s  framework is well established and applied in many fields, some CSR researchers include “safety” as an additional CSR principle. In the food retail industry, for example, some retailers will not sell genetically modified foods and have a strict hygiene practices to minimize the risk of transmitting foodborne diseases . Teng et al.  suggest that hotels that offer quarantine rooms and resources to travelers/residents returning from overseas can generate a positive CSR strategy during a public health crisis such as COVID-19. Cho et al.  introduced “safety activity” as a new variable for the airline industry’s CSR model, in which the authors emphasized safety protocols as an important part of the industry’s CSR. Given that passengers are often anxious or fearful when they fly, this new activity is particularly relevant during a pandemic, when customers look to the industry and flight attendants for reassurance.
Measures have been implemented to mitigate influenza-type viruses that are easily transmitted at airports and on aircraft, and can spread quickly to other countries. Air travel presents a high risk of contagion, given the proximity of aircraft seats and passengers being in confined space. To help reduce this risk, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airplane manufacturers, industry stakeholders, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) have worked to develop non-pharmaceutical intervention guidelines to limit the spread of infectious diseases on aircraft. For example, IATA recently released new guidelines and standardized procedures for sanitizing and disinfecting aircraft cabins . The WHO also gives hygiene and public health advice specifically to ground personnel and aircraft crews . For this reason, the present study argues that public health and safety activity should be an integral part of the airline industry’s business models to protect passengers and crew from exposure to disease and to safeguard the industry’s reputation.
Airline companies in South Korea have taken steps to help keep flight attendants and passengers safe and informed about COVID-19. According to Korean Airline’s latest safety guidelines , airline authorities require all cabin crew members to perform their jobs on the aircraft while wearing facial masks, gowns, safety glasses, and latex gloves. Furthermore, the flight crew must follow protocol, including: (a) checking their body temperature with touchless temperature scanners; (b) discarding gloves appropriately in cabin waste containers; (c) washing hands before handling inflight meals; (d) keeping physical distance from passengers; (e) monitoring passengers who do not wear face masks; (f) ensuring that social distancing is practiced by passengers; and (g) advising against flight crew members leaving their hotel during a layover.
Asiana Airlines, another major South Korean airline, has employed similar safety measures. In addition to the safety rules that have already been discussed, the airline recommends that all passengers use web/mobile check-in during the COVID-19 period to reduce direct contact with airline staff . Moreover, the company says that it regularly disinfects and sanitizes its aircraft cabins upon arrival. It installed high-quality air circulation systems to ventilate the cabins every 2–3 min.
According to Ashforth and Mael , organizational identification is the sense of belonging that people feel toward an organization. Riketta  defines it as “the process of incorporating the perception of oneself as a member of a particular organization into one’s general self-definition” (p. 360). Organizational identification is based on social identity theory , a widely accepted theoretical model that explains why people tend to identify with or desire to be part of a particular social group. In the workplace, employees typically view their organization as a social group, a space in which they develop their careers, earn income, and create social bonds.
A general agreement is that highly identified employees are more likely to engage with and show loyalty to the organization . Empirical evidence shows that those who identify as being part of a company are likely to support its values, business philosophy, and social norms . Employees who strongly identify with a company are likely to think and act from the perspective of that company . For the aviation industry, employees are encouraged to believe in and trust the company’s operating practices.
Organizational commitment is the psychological state of intensity that employees feel about the organization they work for or to which they belong . In other words, employees who trust and appreciate an organization’s goals and values will want to remain a member of it. Although organizational commitment is often compared to organizational identification because the two concepts have a high level of synchronization, some scholars argue that they are fundamentally different ideas. For example, according to Stinglhamber et al. , organizational identification can be defined as self-perceptions of identity with the organization whereas organizational commitment refers to the employee’s attitude towards it. Marique and Stinglhamber  assert that, although organizational identification is based on an employee’s subjective perception of perceived similarity with the organization, organizational commitment can be viewed as an exchange process in which members become devoted to their company and deliver high-quality work for the organization.
Self-esteem is the overall positive assessment and descriptive conceptualization that people build and maintain for and about themselves . It is a feeling of self-value and the desire to have a positive feeling of oneself . Because people with high self-esteem regard themselves as valuable , many organizations see it as an important factor in the success of the company and its employees.
In the workplace, the employee’s organizational-based self-esteem is regarded as a critical and consistent performance generator, and is the degree to which an employee believes in him/herself as a competent and valuable member of the company . Employees with high levels of self-esteem are generally more confident in their abilities and are often viewed by their peers as skilled, motivated, and authorized .
Social identity theory proposes that individuals tend to share a sense of belonging to their group and are set apart from out-group members based on their institute affiliation, class, age, and gender . Previous studies have adopted social identity theory to explain how CSR creates a virtuous reputation and encourages employees to identify with their companies. Mahmood et al.  showed that, when an organization engages in CSR activities, its members value being part of that organization, have a sense of belonging, and feel positive and respectful about the business. In the context of tourism and hospitality, Kim et al.  used social identity theory to show that employees feel personal pride if their organization cares about CSR activities. In light of this, social identity theory guides the present research to explain how the airline industry’s CSR and public health and safety activities influence flight attendants’ organizational identification, self-esteem, and commitment to the company during a pandemic.
Although Carroll’s  multiple dimensions of CSR are well established and have been used in many studies , previous studies have not applied the four dimensions of CSR to employees’ organizational identification, especially from the viewpoint of internal marketing. Instead, they treat CSR as a one-dimensional factor for assessing how CSR affects organizational identification . For example, using CSR as a single factor to examine how CSR impacts employees’ organizational identification, Brammer et al.  found that the more a company is committed to socially responsible activities, the stronger the organizational identity is among employees. El-Kassar et al.  also found a positive association between CSR and organizational identification; when companies engage in corporate social activities, their employees are more likely to identify with, have a sense of belonging to, and be proud of the company. Moreover, Kim et al.  found that community engagement by companies had a positive effect on their employees’ perceived external prestige and enhanced their organizational identification. In reviewing the above literature, it is reasonable to propose that treating CSR as a uni-dimensional construct will positively and significantly influence the organizational identification of flight attendants. However, some scholars of tourism and hospitality have applied multiple dimensions of CSR and found that employees have a varying perspective towards their company’s different types of CSR activities . For example, Lee et al.  examined the perceptions of casino employees on CSR and found that the legal-CSR dimension has the strongest impact on organizational behavior.
Applying the same dynamics to the airline industry, we expect that the four dimensions of CSR (i.e., economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic) will help to reveal how flight attendants’ organizational identification is affected by an airline company’s CSR during COVID-19. More importantly, applying multiple dimensions of CSR should contribute to the organizational identification literature and help to reveal which type of CSR has a significant effect on flight attendants’ organizational behavior. Thus, guided by Carroll’s  four types of CSR, the present study proposes the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1a (H1a).
Economic CSR is positively associated with the organizational identification of flight attendants.
Hypothesis 1b (H1b).
Legal CSR is positively associated with the organizational identification of flight attendants.
Hypothesis 1c (H1c).
Ethical CSR is positively associated with the organizational identification of flight attendants.
Hypothesis 1d (H1d).
Philanthropic CSR is positively associated with the organizational identification of flight attendants.
Although there is limited research empirically testing any link between health and safety-CSR and organizational identification, some researchers  suggest that when employees believe that their organization cares about their safety and health, the employees’ level of attachment and identification towards the company increases. Other research  of a banking and telecommunication company in Pakistan found that internal CSR (e.g., supporting workers’ health and safety) has a positive indirect effect on their organizational identification. Although Hameed et al.  found no direct effect of internal CSR on organizational identification, they assumed that the reason was that developing countries, such as Pakistan, invest little in internal CSR for their employees. Thus, it is possible to predict that, if developed countries or large corporate organizations (e.g., Korean Air, Asiana Airlines) treat their employees well and invest in internal CSR (e.g., flight attendants well-being and safety), the flight attendants will more likely have positive feelings for and identify with their organization.
Because workplace hygiene practices are now routine , airlines that prioritize their employees’ health and safety should be highly valued by their employees. Thus, the present study predicts that companies focusing on internal CSR (e.g., flight attendants) and ensuring that the staff are safe and healthy during a pandemic may help flight attendants to build a strong identification with the company. Thus, the present study proposes the following hypothesis.
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
‘Public health and safety’ is positively associated with the organizational identification of flight attendants.
Although little research has explored the relationship between employees’ organizational identification and self-esteem, one study found that high organizational identification resulted in enhanced self-esteem . Collecting data from two commercial industries in Romania, Cohen-Meitar et al.  revealed that employees who identify with their organization have a higher level of organizational-based self-esteem, which leads to enhanced creativity. Additional research shows that positive group identification correlates with high self-esteem , which implies that the more people favorably identify with a group (e.g., in-group), the higher their self-esteem. On the basis of the evidence above, the present study predicts that flight attendants will feel better about themselves (i.e., have higher self-esteem) if they perceive that their organization differs positively from other groups or organizations (i.e., they will have higher organizational identification). For example, if the airline industry incorporates pandemic-specific policies, safety procedures, and capabilities into its CSR, flight attendants will respond positively to the industry, increasing their organizational identification and bolstering their self-esteem. Thus, this study posits the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
Organizational identification is positively associated with the self-esteem of flight attendants.
The idea that organizational identification can predict organizational commitment was claimed by Stinglhamber et al.  and Marique and Stinglhamber . To support their claim, Stinglhamber et al.  administered an instrument (e.g., organizational identification, affective commitment) of the two models to public companies in Belgium. The results indicated a strong relationship between organizational identification and affective commitment. They found that Belgian employees who believed that their organization’s success was also their success (i.e., organizational identification) displayed a higher level of organizational commitment compared to those who had a low organizational identification. Marique and Stinglhamber  also found a positive connection between organizational identification and organizational commitment, which revealed that work-group identification and occupational identification had a substantial effect on affective commitment. Similarly, Ellemers et al.  examined a link between in-group identification and group commitment in two experimental studies and confirmed group-identification as an important antecedent of commitment. After reviewing the above studies, this study predicts that the organizational identification of flight attendants will positively affect their commitment to the organization. Therefore, this study proposes the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 4 (H4).
Organizational identification is positively associated with the organizational commitment of flight attendants.
Lastly, the present study examines how self-esteem interacts with organizational commitment. In the hospitality organizational setting, Back et al.  revealed that casino employees who have high self-esteem had a higher commitment to the organization. Additional research by Akgunduz  reported that self-esteem is a significant factor positively affecting hotel employees’ job performance. From a business organizational perspective, having employees with high self-esteem is important because it contributes significantly to a company’s success. Thus, this study posits the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 5 (H5).
Self-esteem is positively associated with the organizational commitment of flight attendants.
Based on the literature and hypotheses above, a research model is proposed, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Conceptual model.