Purpose: Using legitimacy and impression management theories, this study examines whether there is evidence of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) decoupling by critically analysing the cases of three Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 350 airline companies (British Airways, WizAir, and Easyjet). The study focusses on three CSR aspects: community, customer, and employee support. Design/methodology/approach: Using the case study method, the authors critically analysed the content of the three companies' websites and verified Twitter accounts between March 2020 and August 2020. The authors also reviewed news media sources tied explicitly to COVID-19 and the airline industry. Findings: The study finds evidence of CSR decoupling due to inconsistencies between the three airline companies' communication about the companies' commitment to customers' health and safety and their actions. The study also uncovers that the three airline companies have violated employee rights by imposing unjustifiable and excessive redundancies and pay cuts, freezing planned pay rises, forcing unpaid leaves, and in some cases, suspending free meals during the crew shifts and exploiting the financial pressure and lack of jobs resulting from the pandemic by offering employees inferior contracts. Research limitations/implications: This paper responds to He and Harris's (2020) call for research to explore the impact of the global pandemic on CSR practices and Crane and Matten's (2020) call for research investigating how specific stakeholders get unvalued during the pandemic. The authors' study argues that the social responsibility of organisations, especially during crises, should not only focus on voluntary and charitable deeds but also on supporting employees, putting employees' well-being at the forefront of employees' operations, and maintaining credibility and sincerity in employees' communication and actions. Practical implications: The findings in this paper provide insights and policy implications for managers, stakeholders, and regulators. The paper sheds light on violations of employee rights, indicating that employees in the airline sector are amongst the under-appreciated stakeholders during the pandemic. Such knowledge is essential for practitioners and policymakers who are charting paths forward to address the needs of vulnerable categories of employees. The paper also elucidates the impact of CSR decoupling on an organisation's legitimacy and the significance of maintaining credibility in CSR communications and actions, especially during a crisis. Originality/value: Although exploring and analysing CSR practices in organisations has already attracted considerable interest in recent years, there is minimal knowledge about organisations' genuine commitment to CSR during the pandemic, and there is a dearth of relevant studies in the aviation industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study addresses this gap by exploring the CSR practices of three airline companies and the companies' genuine commitment to CSR during the pandemic.