Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Airline Executive Resigns After Halting Flight Over Snack Service

Seoul, South Korea:  Drunken and boorish behavior, cellphones, crying children and reclining seat backs have all led to flight rage. But a bag of macadamia nuts?

Criticism has come nonstop for Korean Air Lines since it was discovered that one of its executives had ordered a flight from New York to Incheon, South Korea, to return to the gate to kick a senior staff manager off the plane in a tiff over how the executive was served the nuts.

This was no ordinary executive on Korean Air Flight 86, as it turned out: Cho Hyun-ah was not only in charge of in-flight service for Korean Air, but is also a daughter of the chairman of the family-run conglomerate that operates the airline.

Cho, who resigned Tuesday after an outburst of another sort of rage on social and traditional media in South Korea, became irate Friday after a flight attendant served nuts without first asking her, and in an unopened package instead of on a plate.

She summoned the chief flight attendant and grilled him on the rules for serving nuts. He fumbled, Korean Air officials said, and Cho wanted him out, then and there.

The episode made Cho the latest symbol of excess at the country's conglomerates, known as chaebol, whose controlling families have long been accused of running their companies like dynasties.

Bloggers ridiculed Cho, who also uses the given name Heather, for "going nuts over nuts." "She is a national embarrassment to all of us," one Internet user said on Korean Air's official Facebook page.

Some even likened the Cho family to the family of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, who rule that country as a totalitarian fief.

By Tuesday, with many South Koreans calling for a boycott of Korean Air, which they nicknamed "Air Nuts," the airline announced that Cho had resigned as the head of in-flight services, though not as a vice president.

"I am sorry for causing trouble to the passengers and the people," Cho said in a statement Tuesday. "I seek forgiveness from those who were hurt by what I did."

Korean Air said the jet was only about 35 feet away from the gate at Kennedy International Airport when it returned. Still, the airline acknowledged that the decision had been "excessive" because there was no emergency.

But the company also offered an excuse for Cho's behavior, saying that it was "natural" for her to chastise the crew for improper in-flight service and that the decision to take the plane back to the gate had been made in consultation with the pilot.

The explanation, however, failed to soothe an angry South Korean public.

The episode cannot be explained "except by the fact that Vice President Cho Hyun-ah was a member of the chairman's family," said the influential civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. It said the case exemplified how the personal wishes of the family of a leading South Korean conglomerate often override official regulations and common sense.

"No pilot is going to oppose an order from the daughter of the company owner," said Lee Gae-ho, a lawmaker affiliated with the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the main opposition party.

The South Korean Transportation Ministry said it was investigating whether Cho's behavior had violated the country's aviation safety laws, which bar passengers from causing disturbances, like using violent language or yelling. The domestic news media reported that Cho had screamed at the crew.

Like other South Korean tycoons, Cho's father, Cho Yang-ho, the chairman of the Hanjin Group, has placed his three children in executive posts in the conglomerate, which also runs shipping, logistics and hotel businesses.

A handful of family-controlled conglomerates dominate the South Korean economy. Although they own relatively small stakes in their corporate empires - the Cho family owns about 10 percent of Korean Air, for instance - they are known to wield unchallenged authority over their subsidiaries. The units are interlocked by cross-shareholdings, and family members and loyal executives occupy important corporate posts.

Business elites in South Korea have long faced criticism that they act as if they were above the law. In 2007, Kim Seung-youn, chairman of the Hanwha conglomerate, was briefly jailed for attacking bar workers who had gotten into a drunken brawl with his son. While his bodyguards watched, Kim assaulted one of the victims with a metal pipe, the police said. He was released when his sentence was suspended.

And in 2010, a member of the family that controls the SK conglomerate received a suspended prison term for hitting a 52-year-old former union activist 13 times with an aluminum baseball bat while his executives watched. He then wrote out a check for 20 million won, about $18,000, on a company account and threw it in the victim's face.

Some South Korean news outlets said that Korean Air's action against Cho on Tuesday was superficial because she retained her vice-presidential title, as well as her executive roles in other subsidiaries of her father's Hanjin Group.