US Airways has been at the centre of a Twitter storm after it responded to customer complaints with a graphic sexual image / Getty Images

Airline apologises and promises to investigate after extraordinary gaffe eclipses Pulitzer Prize in terms of discussion on social media

An airline in the US has been forced to apologise after it responded to complaints on its official Twitter feed by posting an extremely graphic sexual image.

US Airways, like many of its competitors, has a dedicated social media team which replies to scores of messages from customers every day.

Yesterday it responded to one tweet from a young female user identified only as Alex, who said: “You ruined my spring break, I want some free stuff @USAirways H8 YOU”.

The airline replied: “We don’t like to hear this, Alex. Please provide feedback to our Customer Relations team here,” followed by a link to a pornographic image of a woman performing a sex act with a model Boeing 777.

US Airways has more than 420,000 followers and, unsurprisingly, many quickly responded to the exchange to express a mixture of disgust, anger, surprise and amusement.

It later emerged that the same link had been used in responses to other users as well. After @ellerafter complained about a one-hour delay arriving in Portland, Oregon, the airline tweeted: “We welcome feedback, Elle. If your travel is complete, you can detail it here for review and follow-up,” followed by the picture.

The exchanges quickly became hugely popular among other users, rising to be the top trending topic in the US and receiving more comments and retweets than the news of the Pulitzer Prize award breaking at the same time.

The airline has since apologised and said it was “investigating” the source of the tweets, which have since been removed.

Many speculated that the image was posted as a cruel joke by departing member of US Airways’ social media team – but it has also been reported that the picture was earlier sent in a message to, not from, the airline.

It now seems likely that the airline’s staff were trying to link to the image in order to report it as abuse with Twitter admin when they accidentally pasted it into responses to customers.

The spectacular Twitter “fail”, as it has been dubbed, came just a day after another involving American Air – the airline with which US Airways is set for a merger.

Yesterday a 14-year-old Dutch girl was arrested by police in Rotterdam after tweeting a “joke” terror threat to the airline.

American Airlines responded to her vow to “do something really big” by saying it “takes these threats very seriously” and said the issue would be passed on to the FBI.