Virgin trashed on social media over China racism claims

Haze Fan | Special to CNBC
Virgin America connects Silicon Valley to Denver

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.

Sir Richard Branson poses in front of an aircraft at Perth Airport on May 7, 2013 in Perth, Australia.
Branson: If you have to make a fool of yourself, do it

In her Weibo post, the female passenger alleged that the male passenger abused her without provocation, calling her a "Chinese pig" and balling up his fists as if he planned to hit her. The flight attendant then failed to fulfil a promise to move the man further from her seat, the woman said.

She was not pacified by an email she received from Virgin after the flight, which promised to investigate the incident.

However, the news site reported that another passenger had given it a very different account of the incident, in which the man and woman argued after she tried to change seats before the flight took off, and that the argument turned into a shouting match that was aggressive on both sides.

The passenger speaking to Shanghaiist said, however, that they could not comment on whether there was racist abuse because they did not hear all of the interaction.

In a statement to CNBC, Virgin said, "We have fully investigated this incident by speaking with those involved, fellow customers and the cabin crew present. We understand that there was an altercation between two customers on board the flight, which resulted in both individuals becoming upset and distressed."

"Upon noticing the argument, our cabin crew did their best to resolve the situation by suggesting that they could relocate the female customer and her male travelling companion following take off, and the passenger later relocated of her own accord."

As mainland citizens become increasingly wealthy, and their country is acknowledged as both a driver of global growth and one that is easily able to acquire Western companies in multi-billion dollar deals, their expectations of customer service have also risen.

Many of the social media posts on the Virgin incident referenced the need for greater respect for China's growing influence.

"It's no longer the 1840s when China lost its dignity and sovereignty after the Opium War! We're now giving hundreds of billions of USD to the UK to save your economy and people, so how about some respect to the money-giver," one poster wrote.

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