Korean ‘Nutgate’ saga ends with former executive, Heather Cho, jailed for one year

Back on the 5th December last year we reported on the incident where Heather Cho, the daughter of the Chairman of Korean Air, Cho Yang-ho, created more than just a commotion over the incorrect presentation of some peanuts on board her flight. Rather than simply admonishing the member of the cabin staff for the error, she demanded the plane return to the terminal and the Chief Steward be removed after being struck by her several times with her tablet computer and also being forced to kneel and beg forgiveness from her.

At the time, Heather Cho held the position of Vice-President Korean Airlines, Chief Executive of KAL Hotel Network, Wangsan Leisure Development, and Hanjin Travel Service, and she was also a Board Director of Korean Air. Initially the airline issued an apology stating that her actions were in accordance with her role of inspecting in-flight service and airplane safety. However this appeased few, and her father was soon to follow up the incident by publically apologising for his daughter’s actions, blaming himself for the way he had raised her. He not only removed her from her position with Korean Air, but also from all other positions she held in any of her father’s companies.

One of the problems in South Korea is that many of the major companies are family-owned organizations, known as chaebols. Some of the families operating these businesses have often been accused of high-handedness and acting with impunity, of which this was a prime example. The incident in question involved a flight attendant who served her a bag of nuts still in their original packet, as per the airline’s protocol. However as a first class passenger Heather Cho felt the nuts should have been served to her in a bowl. She rebuked the attendant, but demanded the chief steward be removed from the flight.

As the plane had already left the departure gate (but not taxied far), this caused a delay in the flight’s departure from New York’s JFK airport as the plane had to return and the chief steward be removed. However Heather Cho did not take into account how her actions and demands would be seen by the public and how the South Korean Government would view the situation. Shortly after the event she was charged with obstructing aviation safety.

Sentencing her to one year in prison, Judge Oh made it very clear he felt she had not shown sufficient remorse since she had submitted letters of apology to the court. The judge indicated that Cho had treated the flight “as if it was her own private plane”, adding that “It is doubtful that the way the nuts were served was so wrong.” He rejected her defense’s plea that the plane was still being pushed away from the entrance gate and therefore there was no safety issue. Judge Oh felt that from the moment the plane left the departure gate it was considered to be ‘in flight.’

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