SEOUL, South Korea – A Korean Air flight attendant described being insulted and shamed by the airline’s executive who ordered him removed and the plane returned over macadamia nuts, and then being asked to lie about the incident to investigators.
The “nut rage” drama has captivated South Korea with tales of outrageous behaviour followed by public apologies from the executive and her father, the airline’s chairman.
Cho Hyun-ah, who has since resigned as head of cabin service at Korean Air, was angered when a flight attendant in first class offered her macadamia nuts in a bag, not on a plate. She ordered him off the plane and forced the flight to return to the gate at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City.
“People who haven’t experienced will not understand that feeling of being insulted and shamed,” senior flight attendant Park Chang-jin told South Korea’s KBS television network on Friday.
After being confronted about the nuts, he said he and his colleague kneeled down before Cho.
He said Cho poked the back of his hand with a corner of the flight manual book several times.
According to Park, Cho yelled at the crew to “call right now and stop the plane. I will stop this plane from leaving.” Park said that in such a situation, he could not dare to refuse the “owner’s daughter.”
When Park returned to South Korea on a separate flight after being forced out from the plane, five to six officials from Korean Air came to visit his home every day and asked him to give a false account to authorities of what happened, he told KBS. The officials asked him to tell investigators that Cho did not use abusive language and that he voluntarily got off the plane, Park said.
Korean Air confirmed that Park was the senior flight attendant — or head of cabin crew — who was on the flight with Cho Hyun-ah and who had to leave the plane. The company declined to comment on the matter under investigation by the transport ministry and prosecutors.
On Friday, in her first public appearance since the incident, a gloomy-faced Cho bowed and said “I sincerely apologize. I’m sorry,” before droves of journalists in an almost inaudible, trembling voice. She said she will meet the victimized crew member and “apologize sincerely.”
She is facing questioning over the possibility her actions violated aviation safety law.
Hours before her apology, Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho also made a deep bow before journalists. He called his daughter’s behaviour foolish and said he regrets he didn’t raise her better.
“It’s my fault,” he said. “As chairman and father, I ask for the public’s generous forgiveness.”
Earlier this week, Cho resigned as Korean Air’s head of cabin service but retained other executive roles at the airline and its affiliated companies. Her father said Friday she is resigning from executive roles at all affiliates of Hanjin, the group that controls Korean Air.
South Korean media called the 40-year-old a princess and some Koreans said she was an international embarrassment to her country. Still, many South Koreans were not surprised by Cho’s display of entitlement, pointing to a culture that held in high esteem the families who founded the industrial conglomerates credited with leading the country to modernization and wealth.
Nowadays, however, there is growing criticism of ostentatious wealth and unfettered power, particularly directed at the newest generation, which is inheriting the business empires founded by their fathers and grandfathers. All three children of Cho Yang-ho rose quickly to the top ranks of the airline, holding executive roles in it and affiliate companies.