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Ex-airline exec gets jail time for ‘nut rage’ incident

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Posted at 10:53 AM, Feb 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-12 15:16:25-05

SEOUL, South Korea — Heather Cho, the former Korean Air executive who ordered an international flight to return to the gate over how macadamia nuts were served in first class, has been sentenced to a year in jail.

A South Korean court on Thursday found her guilty of violating aviation law, changing flight path and interference of operations.

The judge said that Cho was a passenger on the Korean Air flight and could not override crew members and give orders during a flight.

On December 5, Cho, the daughter of the airline chairman, ordered an international flight back to the gate at New York’s JFK airport after becoming dissatisfied that her macadamia nuts were served in a bag instead of on a plate in first class.

She had the chief steward removed from the flight after the plane had departed from the gate.

The judge criticized Cho’s conduct, saying if she had a conscience, the incident would not have happened, and said the former executive had used the plane as if it was her own car.

He added that her actions threatened the development of the aviation industry and inconvenienced passengers. The flight arrived 11 minutes behind schedule.

‘Feudal slaves’

Cho appeared in court in a green prison uniform, with a downward gaze and her hair hiding her face. In court, she said, “I don’t know how to find forgiveness.”

Her one-year sentence was less than the three years prosecutors sought for her actions and for what they described as a systematic attempt to cover up what happened on the flight.

The case, which has gripped South Korea, has not just been about the behavior of the Korean Air chairman’s daughter.

It has raised suspicions and outrage over the family members of powerful corporations — called chaebol in South Korea. There is growing resentment over the perceived privileges and nepotism for the families who control the country’s top companies.

Park Chang-jin, the chief steward on the flight, who was booted from the plane, had said that the crew were treated like “feudal slaves” by Cho.

Cover-up of nuts scandal

The event dubbed by the media as “nut rage” started when flight attendant, Kim Do Hee served Cho the offending nuts.

As the incident escalated, Kim and Park ended up kneeling in front of Cho in apology. Kim testified that Cho berated them about the service, and later shoved and cursed her.

When the flight arrived in Korea, Kim said she was pressured by another airline manager, Yeo Woon-jin not to talk about the physical abuse by Cho to investigators. Both crew members said they were pressured to change their stories.

That executive was found guilty of interference on Thursday.

Airline chairman sorry

Following public fury over the December incident, Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho apologized to the flight attendants and the public.

When he was asked in court in January whether he was aware that his daughter mistreated employees, he responded: “I just heard that she’s strict with her workers.”

Heather Cho resigned from her post as a vice president at the company in December and made a public apology with her head bowed, saying she accepted “full responsibility.”