A Seoul court on Thursday sentenced a former Korean Air executive to a year in prison for aviation law violations that stemmed from her inflight tantrum over how she was served macadamia nuts.
Cho Hyun-ah, the daughter of Korean Air’s chairman, achieved worldwide notoriety after she ordered the chief flight attendant off a Dec. 5 flight, forcing it to return to the gate at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
Head of cabin service at the time of the incident, Cho was angered she had been offered macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a dish. A heated and physical confrontation with members of the crew in first class ensued.
The court said Cho was guilty of forcing a flight to change its route, obstructing the flight’s captain in the performance of his duties and forcing a crew member off a plane. It found her not guilty of interfering with a transport ministry investigation into the incident. Prosecutors had called for three years in prison.
Cho, in custody since Dec. 30, wiped away tears with a tissue as a letter expressing her remorse was read to the court by head judge Oh Seong-woo.
It included details about how Cho, one of the richest women in South Korea who regularly flew first class, was adjusting to the basic conditions in prison and reflecting on her life. “I know my faults and I’m very sorry,” Cho said in her letter.
Cho’s high-and-mighty behavior, dubbed nut rage, caused an uproar in South Korea. The incident was a lightning rod for anger in a country where the economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol that often act above the law. The sentencing did not entirely douse that outrage: One year in prison is a “bit short,” said Jo Young-sang, 24.
Chaebol chiefs convicted of white collar crimes have typically received suspended prison sentences and later on, presidential pardons. Courts have often acknowledged the contribution of such industrialists in transforming South Korea from an economic backwater into a developed economy.
But the Cho case indicates South Korean society is less indulgent of the second and third generation members of high-profile business families. Heirs to fantastic fortunes such as Cho quickly ascend the executive ladder but few believe their rise is based on merit.