What started out as a disgruntled passenger with a legitimate complaint about Air France has taken a serious turn after an open letter to its CEO went "viral" on social media this week.
Jay Shah, a passenger flying on the carrier from New York's JFK to Mumbai via Paris, published a letter to Air France-KLM CEO Alexandre De Junaic his blog on Monday this week.
The letter outlined in detail a series of incidents in Paris when Shah and his fellow passengers had to sleep in the terminal after their connecting flight to India was cancelled.
The majority of passengers connecting in the French capital were unable to leave the airport for a transit hotel because they did not have the correct visa to do so (the Schengen document).
Shah claims they were forced to sleep wherever they could, had limited refreshments made available to them, and were generally on the end of some shoddy customer service by Air France officials on the ground.
Although the letter drops into a rather sarcastic, third person narrative in parts, Shah also raises a number of issues regarding the perceived care (or not, in this case) of Indian passengers.
Highlighting warnings he received previously, Shah writes:
"The thing that lingers at the back of my mind more than anything else right now is the gut wrenching fact that everyone you know who had traveled to France earlier warned you about this, you knew you were being targeted because of your race but you’re in denial thinking you’re being irrational."
Since the the letter was posted on Jay's blog, around 48,000 people on Facebook have "liked" it. There have been close to 1,800 tweets mentioning it and 850 shares on Google Plus.
The Times of India picked it up, too. Social Mention has some data. FirstPost has some analysis. There are some 1.34 million page views to his blog post (picture on his Facebook page).
The timing of Shah's posts are rather curious - the incident happened almost three weeks ago and he chose to stagger the post containing Air France's reply to a consecutive day, rather than mention that the carrier had responded in his original article containing the letter.
Shah has since posted his reply to Air France's response.
But, still, Air France is on the back-foot, not least because of the hints in the letter that the carrier's behaviour could be motivated by something more sinister than just incompetence or neglectful customer service.
It took almost 30 hours for Air France to issue a press statement.
The carrier confirms that the connecting flight was cancelled due to a technical issue with the aircraft and that repairs had taken "longer than expected", meaning all passengers needed to be rebooked for a flight the following .
The visa issues outlined by Shah in his letter are also addressed, but only to explain that it is the Border Police's responsibility to issue temporary access to hotels outside of the airport - a request which was not granted.
In terms of the customer service, it explains:
"The Air France teams, for whom the safety and comfort of their customers is the top priority, deeply regrets what happened and the inconvenience caused to this group of passengers. They are in contact with them and are currently collecting the various elements to be able to deal with their requests in accordance with passenger rights regulations."
Finally it gets to address the incendiary issue of race:
"Air France is an international airline operating worldwide, and carries over 77 million passengers annually. Air France is open to diverse cultures and does not discriminate in any way."
With the series of letters continuing to capture more traffic (and the story almost inevitably expected to get picked up by other mainstream media), plus a YouTube clip of an Air France official refusing to allow a passenger to use a wheelchair, PR teams will be all hands on deck in the coming days.
Shah has not responded to a request for comment by Tnooz.