SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea will most likely order some Korean Air flights suspended after one of the company’s executives made a passenger jet return to the gate because she was angry with the way she was served macadamia nuts, government investigators said Tuesday.
Cho Hyun-ah, 40, hurled “loud and abusive language” at the first-class cabin crew after she was served her macadamias in an unopened package, instead of on a plate, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said in a statement.
In another finding that was likely to damage Korean Air’s image, the ministry said the airline’s executives had tried to persuade the cabin crew members to “make false statements” to government investigators in order to protect Cho, who had earlier denied using abusive language or violence.
“We will impose a suspension of flights or a financial penalty against Korean Air for violating aviation laws,” Kwon Yong-bok, a senior ministry official of airline safety, said during the media briefing. The laws ban onboard disturbances, such as using loud or threatening language, that could endanger the safety of a passenger jet.
The ministry briefed the media Tuesday on its investigation of the Dec. 5 episode, in which the irate Cho ordered Korean Air Flight 86, bound for Incheon, South Korea, and already taxiing at Kennedy International Airport in New York to return to the gate to kick off the chief steward.
South Koreans believed that Cho could do so not because she was Korean Air’s vice president in charge of in-flight services but because she was a daughter of its powerful chairman, Cho Yang-ho. Cho and Korean Air have since become objects of withering criticism and ridicule. The reaction was particularly harsh in South Korea, where people saw Cho as the latest example of arrogance and entitlement prevalent among the families that control big South Korean businesses, such as Korean Air.
Kwon said the government will later sort out details of the punishment, such as how many flights will be suspended and for how long.
There was no immediate reaction from Korean Air. The company had earlier admitted that the decision to turn the plane around Dec. 5 was “excessive” because there was no emergency involved.
Cho and Korean Air officials faced a separate criminal investigation by prosecutors who were looking into whether her behavior violated aviation regulations and whether the company tried to hush up the scandal.
The South Korean media and analysts said Cho’s nut scandal exposed problems deeply rooted in the corporate culture of so-called chaebol, the country’s family-controlled business conglomerates, whose leaders have a reputation for imperious behavior and treating their employees like feudal subjects.
Park Chang-jin, the senior steward who was kicked off the plane, has told South Korean television stations that he and a junior steward who had served the nuts were forced to kneel before Cho. He said he was compelled to obey her because she was “a daughter of the owner” of Korean Air.
When Cho was called in for questioning by the government Friday, a horde of Korean Air officials accompanied her, although by then, her father, the chairman Cho Yang-ho, had apologized for her “foolish conduct” and said he would fire her from all corporate posts in his sprawling conglomerate.
Some of those Korean Air officials asked janitors at the government building to clean the women’s restroom again because Cho would most likely use it, the local media reported this week. A Korean Air spokesman said he could not immediately confirm or deny the reports.
In a South Korean conglomerate, members of the “owner family” are said to wield decisive influence on which top managers are promoted or removed in their corporate empires. They have often returned to top posts themselves even after they were convicted of bribery, tax evasion and other crimes. (Cho Yang-ho was convicted of tax evasion in 2000.) Park, the steward, has said that Cho hit him with a plastic folder of in-flight service manuals - a claim she denied. On Tuesday, government officials said they would ask prosecutors to determine who was lying.
They also said they would punish the airline, not the pilot, for turning the plane around on Dec. 5. Given Cho’s “special” status among pilots and other employees, government investigators determined that the captain of Flight 86 “had no option” but to follow her order, said Lee Gwang-hee, a senior government investigator.
The transportation ministry said it would form a special panel to check “whether the safety procedures of Korean Air are undermined by its organizational culture.”
“If we find a problem there,” it said in a statement, “we will take drastic action.”