Heather Cho: Why she may face legal action for Korean Air 'nut rage'

Heather Cho nut rage: A Korean Air exec got upset that she wasn't served macadamia nuts properly. Heather Cho ordered the plane back to the gate. She has stepped down, but she may face a fine for violating aviation safety procedures. 

In this Sept. 2014 photo, Cho Hyun-ah, Korean Air's vice president responsible for cabin service and the oldest child of Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, answers reporters' question during a news conference in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea. Korean Air Lines apologized Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, for inconveniencing passengers after Cho ordered a crew member off a flight for serving bagged nuts in the first class cabin.

A Korean Air executive had a flight attendant kicked off a plane after an improper pre-flight snack procedure, but now the airline vice president could be facing much more serious charges herself.

Heather Cho reportedly reprimanded a junior crew member for not following the correct procedure for asking passengers about macadamia nuts before the plane took off, and then serving the nuts in a bag instead of on a plate, according to the Korea Times. Then, Ms. Cho demanded the chief flight attendant produce the flight service manual, and when he failed to find it, she ordered him off the plane. The plane had already left the gate, so it returned for the chief attendant to disembark, and the flight departed 20 minutes late.

"The chief flight attendant failed to get the right manual, and this led Cho to believe he was not qualified for that job," a Korean Air official told the Times.

The nutty incident on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport has critics in South Korea angry over what they see as pompous behavior from monied elite, and aviation officials are now investigating for possible breaches of safety regulations.

Cho, whose father is chairman at Korean Air – which excused her behavior while apologizing to inconvenienced passengers – has now resigned amid the surge in public criticism.

Cho is the oldest child in a tycoon family and her siblings are also executives at South Korea's largest airline. The incident drew wide and deep criticism in South Korea where the economy is dominated by family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol, according to the Associated Press.

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 Co., part of a business empire that spans the travel, logistics, hotel and leisure industries.

Korean Air said the flight's captain made the decision to turn the plane around and dispense the crew member, and that it was "natural" to fault the attendant's procedural ignorance, according to the Associated Press. But South Korea's government said it is probing whether Cho violated aviation safety law. Cho could have legal trouble if the investigation turns out evidence she interrupted the flight or endangered safety by using threats, her status, or violence.

Cabin crew members are only to take orders from the captain during a flight, the Guardian noted.

A ministry official told reporters inspectors were investigating whether her behavior was in violation of the law, noting the incident is "unprecedented," a ministry official told reporters.

“Even if she is the vice-president of the airline, she was one of [many] passengers and should have been treated as such,” he said.

He said Cho should have waited for landing to lecture the attendant.  

According to Korea's Aviation Safety and Security Law, only the pilot is in charge of the management of flight attendants during flights. It also bars passengers from causing disturbances, including violent language or yelling.

The Korea Times reported "those disturbing flight crew's service through violence or threats, and threatening the safety of passengers and the flight, are subject to up to 5 million won in fine." 

Civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said it would file a complaint against Cho, the Associated Press reported.

"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.

Korean Air maintained Cho is in charge of in-flight service for the carrier and that checking the quality of service was one of her jobs.

The flight from New York arrived in Incheon, South Korea, 11 minutes behind schedule.

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