The incident occurred onboard KLM flight 855 from Amsterdam to Seoul, South Korea, on 10 February.
A crew member had posted a handwritten note in Korean, which said “lavatory for crew members only”, on a toilet door.
Images of the sign, shared by Instagram user Connie Kiim, sparked outcry in South Korea – as it wasn’t also written in English.
She accused KLM of discriminating against South Korean passengers amid the spread of coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,300 people and sickened tens of thousands more.
Images of the note went viral, and the hashtag #boycott_KLM has been circulating on social media.
Twitter user @hyunmoyang, believed to be a friend of the passenger, tweeted: “Dear KLM. You made it quite clear that you discriminate against race. Using Corona Virus as an excuse. You owe my friend and Korea a HUGE apology.”
Dear KLM @KLM
Today, you made it quite clear that you discriminate against race. Using Corona Virus as an excuse. You owe my friend and Korea a HUGE apology. #CoronaVirus #Racism #KLM https://t.co/u3eWVlFZp8 pic.twitter.com/RJj939ODLI— ㅎㅕㄴ모양ㅊㅓ-메인트윗 봐주세요 (@hyunmoyang)February 11, 2020
KLM responded to her saying: “We will conduct an internal investigation and will make sure the crew involved understand why the passengers are upset about what happened.”
Executives from KLM have since apologised publicly over the incident, saying they take allegations of discrimination “very seriously”, reports Reuters.
“This is a human mistake, and we don’t take it lightly,” said Guillaume Glass, a regional general manager for Air France-KLM. “We are deeply sorry that this was viewed as discrimination, which was absolutely not the intention of the crew.”
Cabin crew said that the Korean-only sign was an “oversight”, and a notice in English was added afterwards.
A KLM spokesperson reiterated the airline’s position on crew-only toilets to The Independent: “First of all, we wish to express our sincere apologies to all passengers who were offended by the operation and announcement of crew-only lavatories.
“In coordination with the captain or purser, we occasionally dedicate a lavatory exclusively for crew member use. Normally we inform all passengers of the crew-only lavatories.
“This particular announcement was written in Korean only and the English version was inadvertently omitted, which was pointed out by a passenger. We are deeply sorry that this was viewed as discrimination, which was absolutely not the intention of the crew.
“We are currently conducting an internal investigation and will take the necessary measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”