The stoush began when 27-year-old passenger Emily Lucinda Cole complained about a mix-up to a male ticket inspector on board a crowded Virgin Trains service bound from Edinburgh to London.
The company falls under the umbrella of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.
Ms Cole told the BBC staff had said to passengers on the platform before boarding that they were welcome to sit in the virtually empty first class section of the train provided they paid for a weekend upgrade.
Once on board, staff told passengers this wasn’t the case and forced them to move seats with luggage in tow.
When Ms Cole complained to the male employee, she claimed he patronised her by referring to her as “honey”.
“The first person to check my ticket was very abrasive. His response to my explaining the situation, politely and honestly, and that I wanted to complain, was ‘you go ahead honey’. In the context and given his aggressive tone I can only assume he didn’t like being challenged by a woman,” she told the BBC.
“I wouldn’t have complained if he’d used the term in a familial or affectionate way. It definitely wasn’t that.”
However, the original gaffe snowballed after Ms Cole sent a public tweet regarding the incident to the Virgin Trains East Coast Twitter account.
The original tweet read: “When virgin trains mess up and the older male train manager in the resulting conversation dismisses you with that hideously patronising word women shudder at in contexts such as these: ‘honey.’”
Ms Cole said she was “stunned” by the company’s response, after they posted: “Sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time?”
The company was immediately inundated with accusations of sexism, and the tweet has been deleted.
While some Twitter users accused Ms Cole of overreacting, many offered their support.
He was male. I heard him. And it wasn’t regionally appropriate. She was (legitimately) complaining about something else and his response was highly patronising.
— Joe Cannon #FBPE (@JoeCannonLondon) January 2, 2018
— Hazel Hayes (@TheHazelHayes) January 2, 2018
— John Bradley (@jbradleymedia) January 1, 2018
To their credit, Virgin Trains apologised “unreservedly” for the tweet and for the “offence caused”.
But Ms Cole was not impressed, tweeting: “Wonderful to see that @Virgin_TrainsEC take complaints of rude and misogynistic behaviour seriously. Stunned.”
Some Twitter users have questioned what the repercussions will be for the staff member who sent the tweet, but the company is yet to respond.
But the latest furore is just one of many controversies which have plagued Virgin Trains.
Just last month, UK millionaire businessman James Timpson called the rail operator a “disgrace” after his 15-year-old daughter was abandoned at a London station alone at night.
Yesterday there was chaos on a Virgin Train when a customer left behind a pet scorpion, and in 2014 a Virgin Trains passenger was slapped with a whopping $1900 fine for simply purchasing the wrong ticket.