SEOUL, South Korea – Forget dust-ups over reclining seats in economy class. There’s a new and exclusive twist on inflight anger: Nut rage in first class.
Korean Air Lines' vice president responsible for cabin service, and also the daughter of the airline's chairman, ordered a senior crew member off a plane because first-class passengers were served macadamia nuts in a bag, instead of on a plate.
The executive, Cho Hyun-ah, resigned Tuesday amid a storm of public criticism in South Korea. The airline had earlier excused her behavior even as it apologized for inconveniencing passengers.
South Korean media reported this week that the flight from New York City to Incheon, South Korea returned to the gate after Cho told the head of cabin crew to leave the plane. The reports said Cho quarreled with crew in the first class cabin and the flight departed 20 minutes late.
Cho, 40, is the oldest child of Korean Air’s chairman, tycoon Cho Yang-ho. Her two siblings are also executives at South Korea’s largest airline.
The incident caused uproar in South Korea where it was seen as an example of over-mighty behavior by the offspring of the moneyed elite.
The South Korean economy is dominated by family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol. Family members often wield greater influence over major companies than shareholders and executives with no blood ties to the founding family. The Cho family owns about 10 percent of Korean Air Lines, part of a business empire than spans the travel, logistics, hotel and leisure industries.
Korean Air Lines confirmed that Flight 86 was delayed at John F. Kennedy airport on Dec. 5 due to the nut incident. But the company said the decision to disembark the crew member was made by the flight’s captain.
South Korea’s government said it is investigating whether Cho violated aviation safety law. Cho could face legal action if the probe shows that she interrupted the flight or endangered safety by using threats, her status or violence.
Korean Air Lines Co. said Tuesday before Cho’s resignation that it was “natural” for her to fault the crew’s ignorance of procedures.
The airline’s cabin crew are required to ask first class passengers whether they want nuts, partly to avoid serving them to people with allergies. The nuts also should have been served on a plate.
The airline said it will step up training to improve customer service and safety.
Cho was not available for comment.
People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a civic group, said it would file a complaint against Cho with prosecutors.
“The anger and the concern from the public were so big because safety and procedures related to important services were simply ignored” due to Cho’s status, the group said.