Virgin is fighting to put out a public relations firestorm in China over an alleged racist incident on a flight from London to Shanghai.
Chinese netizens are furious over the March 1 incident on flight VS250, in which a Chinese female passenger claims she was racially abused by a white male passenger, then threatened with removal from the plane by a flight attendant after she reported the abuse.
The woman's March 17 Weibo post on the incident went viral, with the topic #Virgin Racial Discrimination attracting 45 million readers on China's version of Twitter.
Virgin's Weibo account and the Facebook accounts of Virgin Atlantic and the carrier's billionaire founder Richard Branson were inundated with negative comments, while 1.3 million people visited a #Boycotting Virgin Airlines page set up on Weibo.
Even a statement by Virgin Atlantic to China Daily, in which the airline said it "deeply regretted" the woman's experience, failed to douse the flames, with one Weibo poster saying, "If 'feeling sorry' is the only word you can say then you really should get out of China," and others calling Virgin "insincere" and "disgusting."
State media outlets also weighed in, with the Global Times calling Virgin's statement "a mere response," not an apology.
So fierce was the online furor over the VS250 case that Branson posted a blog on Virgin's website on Saturday, warning of the dangers of using social media to air disputes before they had been fully investigated.
"Sometimes the consequences of jumping to conclusions can have a significant impact, in this case on crew members who were doing their job and have received an enormous amount of abuse online," the entrepreneur wrote.