Korean Air Could Be Fined $2 Million Over Nut Lady

Filed Under: Korean Air, Media

On one hand I’d like to think this story has run its course. On the other hand, it just keeps getting better and better.

For those of you that have been living under a rock, see these previous posts:

I’m almost starting to feel bad for Heather Cho. I mean, it’s not her fault she was born into such a rich family, was handed a role as senior vice president for an airline on a silver platter, and has probably been taught to treat “lesser” people poorly from a young age… is it?

She has already resigned, apologized, and been publicly shamed. Like, I sorta kinda almost do feel bad for her in the below video.


But it looks like this might just be the beginning.

Via ABC, Heather Cho could face legal charges, and Korean Air could face a $2 million fine if prosecutors pursue the case:

The daughter of a Korean Air executive who delayed a flight because she was unhappy about how she was served nuts will be reported to prosecutors and the airline could face a fine of up to $US2 million, South Korea’s transport ministry says.

A ministry official said its investigation had confirmed Heather Cho engaged in abusive behaviour towards flight attendants in the December 5 incident at John F Kennedy airport in New York and may have broken aviation law.

Ms Cho may face legal charges if prosecutors pursue the case.

“As it has been confirmed that [Heather] Cho raised her voice and used abusive language as testified by some flight crew members and passengers, we will report her to the prosecution for potential violation of aviation safety law,” the transport ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said Korean Air also violated aviation law and it is reviewing punitive measures for the airline, which could include flight suspensions and a fine of up to $2 million, the statement said.

All I can say is:


What do you think about the situation? Has Heather Cho been punished enough, or should they keep pursuing this?

  1. Turnabout is fair play. We have already litigated what we thought was appropriate or inappropriate about her actions. At this point, it now becomes more instructive for Korean Air, Asian cultures/families, and the rest of us. This may turn into a good MBA test case on a variety of levels. At the very least, this should be read by anyone in senior management that actions have consequences, nothing happens in a vacuum. When Ms. Cho decided to go beyond reprimanding the employee privately and take additional action, she activated a whole chain of events that very well may come back to haunt her, the airline, and managers in general. The biggest thing I see from this is that people in positions of authority, whether earned or inherited, have to be as diligent in remembering the external consequences as the internal ones. Too bad for Ms. Cho perhaps this will be a learning experience for her, her family, and the airlines.

  2. Unfortunately, there seem to be no consequences for the captain who consented to the now discredited demands for the crew member to be removed from the flight. At the end of the day the captain had the authority to deny Ms. Cho’s request/demand and he failed to stand up for his crew. That is where the real problem lies – this entire drama could have been ended before it even began had he done his job properly.

  3. @ Sean M. — That’s a great point. To clarify, do you think he shouldn’t have turned the plane around, or should have turned the plane around and offloaded her? Because at some point she’s a threat to safety if she’s assaulting crew members, no?

  4. the ministry said the airline’s executives had tried to persuade the cabin crew members to “make false statements” to government investigators in order to protect Ms. Cho, who had earlier denied using abusive language or violence.

    I noticed how many commenters blindly accepted Korean Air’s corporate PR spin that she turned the plane around because of safety concerns.

    Another funny:

    When Ms. Cho was called in for questioning by the government on Friday, a horde of Korean Air officials accompanied her…Some of those Korean Air officials asked janitors at the government building to clean the women’s restroom again because Ms. Cho would most likely use it


  5. Sean,

    They also said they would punish the airline, not the pilot, for turning the plane around on Dec. 5. Given Ms. Cho’s “special” status among pilots and other employees, government investigators determined that the captain of Flight 86 “had no option” but to follow her order, said Lee Gwang-hee, a senior government investigator.

  6. Asking a captain to ignore the wishes of the senior executive of his airline is asking a lot. Especially where the pilot probably could be terminated with minimal appeal rights. God knows unions have some problems but I do think because of them that a United/Delta/AA/etc… captain might be a little more willing to stand up to the inappropriate action of a senior VP on a flight.

    I hope they dont end up suspending the JFK-ICN flights as punishment. I have one scheduled in January and god knows getting my 320K Korean Air miles back will not put me in the same place as myself and GF getting to Seoul in first class on Korean air A380

  7. @ Sean M., it’s easy for you to judge what the captain should have or should not have done. Did you ever consider what the consequence would be defying a crazy-entitled-powerful Asian woman in an Asian country? Best case scenario is that he would lose his job. He could be blacklisted and never be able to fly again and his family shamed, etc. The possibility is endless. Heck, if he was in the old China, he and his family could have been thrown in an reeducation camp. I think the current result is the best. Cho gets what she deserves and hopefully learns a lesson and everyone else gets to keep their jobs.

  8. I agree with Sean. I would never want to fly with a captain who has no balls to protect his crew and the safety of his passengers.

    How is that possible? doesn’t the captain outrank ANYONE aboard the plane? weird…

  9. How is that possible? doesn’t the captain outrank ANYONE aboard the plane? weird…

    Not according to Korean custom and practice- at least according to Korean aviation authorities.

  10. @Lantean it’s a whole different culture. It’s not matter of balls to stand up. It’s matter of livelihood. If you got family and kids depending on your wage as a captain, no, you just shut up and do as you are told. They don’t have union or personal rights etc….

  11. @John

    OK, thanks. I guess this makes the discontinued UR transfer to Korean hurts much less because now I really have no desire to fly an airline that is this unsafe.

  12. @Lucky

    you think a corporate culture that won’t allow a captain to stand up to some crazy chippie it is not a safety issue? i beg to differ…

    what if she decided mid-flight she wanted to stop in Anchorage to shop for some fresh salmon? would he have landed there?

  13. what if she decided mid-flight she wanted to stop in Anchorage to shop for some fresh salmon

    Because they ran out of food in first class? I think Ben would be the first to admit that totally requires the flight to divert.

  14. @ Lantean — Sorry, maybe I wasn’t clear. What I was trying to do was contrast this to Korean Air’s past safety record. Historically they have SERIOUS safety issues. Up until 2000 they had one of the worst safety records in the industry. As John notes above, planes have literally been crashed over fear of questioning authority, even in emergencies.

    My point is simply that this is hardly surprising and hardly the greatest issue Korean Air has faced when it comes to questioning hierarchy. I’m just saying that if you’re just realizing *now* that Korean Air has safety issues, you’re kind of late to the party.

    But in all honesty, Korean culture aside, I’m not actually sure I would have acted differently as the captain. What do you do when the person that basically amounts to being your boss is an ass? You kick them off which will almost certainly lead to you being fired, or what? My point is that there’s no good solution here.

  15. @Lucky

    aha, OK, i knew they did have issues… but your reports made it sounds like it was all over, so i actually did consider them for future flights.
    in any case… now it definitely feels like UR didn’t lose much at all by ditching them.

  16. @Lucky – Thank you for the link! You just made decide to never fly KE again.
    These guys landed on a taxiway in 2007? Not even in the 60s? And two incidents in 14 days? That’s like A LOT. And then two accidents in 1 month?

  17. @ Abdel Rahim Abdallah — In fairness, they haven’t had a fatal accident in this century, and they have changed their training and started hiring foreign pilots. So while it’s not the airline I feel safest on, I don’t mind flying them.

  18. Korean custom and practice doesn’t have anything to do with it – The flight was in the US and must abide by US LAWS. Just like anyone else who “…raised her voice and used abusive language as testified by some flight crew members and passengers” would have been removed from the flight by law enforcement and (at least temporarily) detained.

    While operating in the US, the Captain has final authority. This guy just didn’t have the stones…I wouldn’t want to fly with someone like that acting as PIC.

  19. Apparently Cho’s father was “promoted” from President of Korean Air to Chairman of the Hanjin Group after the 1997 accident. It is interesting that the Department of Defense issued a travel restriction on Korean Air for a while.

    Apparently part of the problem is KE practice of hiring Air Force pilots which brings a different cultural mix into the cockpit. From what I understand, Delta is still helping train pilots but it is interesting to note some of the parallel difficulties encountered at Korean Air were well documented after the Asiana accident at SFO. Whether or not Cho explicitly ordered the captain to return to the gate without discussion he was almost certainly compliant.

    Another issue is, since Cho was technically listed as a passenger (even a comped one I assume), there has to be a line between the requirements and expectations of a passenger versus a member of the crew. Others might be able to chime in as to what the policies and customs are when an employee, even a manager, flies but in a passenger capacity. The reason is that while Cho was a boss, and a senior one at that, there are legal implications for disrupting flight crew operations, especially since the improper serving of nuts is clearly not a safety issue.

  20. In related news, the AP reports that sales of macademia nuts in South Korea are soaring as the nut was previously unknown to many South Koreans. Sales surged 12-fold in five days. 😉

  21. I havent commented on this story all the times lucky has covered it in various iterations… cause the media was at fault for blowing up sensationalist journalism and muckraking (positioning it as a nut scandal when the reason for kicking off the purser was him not knowing his shit like the back of his hand.)

    but since this story has devolved and has come to this stage as well, lets be honest for a second: goddamn heather is kinda ugly as sin. if she was pretty I dont think she’d be going around in this circus the way she is. the only obvious solution left here is for her to make a sex tape so everyone can forget about how retarded this other incident was 😉

  22. @Craig (and @Lucky and @Lantean

    Craig is very correct. Both Asian and Korean have a history of poor decision making when it comes to pilots. This isn’t necessarily their fault, however, as Korean culture has a very large hand in it. After multiple incidents, to include that in 1997 and the consequent warnings against flying with them, both Kumho Asiana and the Hanjin conglomerate took *some* strides to change the culture of their airlines. As Craig mentioned, this involved hiring pilots from Western countries to infuse the cockpit with more…”international” practices. That is, a turn away from the hierarchical nonsense that dominated airline operation.

    Old habits die hard, though. Despite multiple airlines/countries being hired as consultants to both the training pipelines and operational aspects of the two airlines, we only have to look to the Asiana crash in SF to see that little has actually changed in Korean corporate culture, at least as far as airlines are concerned. In the Asiana crash, the aforementioned hierarchy and fear of speaking out against a senior pilot – even if he’s clearly wrong – is address head-on. Korean culture is still way too indoctrinated to believe that someone older/senior/higher in status is not to be questioned. And this is a very dangerous practice.

    While anecdotal, I am close friends with a pilot who was hired as a consultant to work with Korean Air in the wake of the 1997 incident to bring Western ideals to the cockpit. He was subsequently dismissed after about 6 months of consultant work when he directly addressed the issue of the Korean concept of senior=better. He was told his services were no longer needed as they did not conform with the ideals to which Korean air chose to conform. He basically told them they were destined to repeat past failure because their own sense of pride in an outdated, backward, and wholly unsafe manner of operating would eventually lead to more deaths. Fast forward to 2013, and that’s exactly what happened. Different airline, but same concept of “so-and-so is senior to me and therefore I am wrong”.

    What this means for the broader context of Korean culture is actually quite positive as this same concept pervades much of Korean culture, popular and corporate. The hierarchy and protocol utilized by Ms. Cho to justify her actions may’ve serve as quite the rude awakening the non-chaebol public needed to lead a sort of revolt against those they feel receive special treatment based solely on status due to financial means.

  23. While it was stupid to kick the FA off the flight, consistently delivering superb/industry-a leading First Class service standards is very very difficult. Getting Korean’s personalized custom salad serving experience (an ASMR performance) requires great training and discipline to achieve that delivery. Every time. It takes fanatics like Cho to acomplish this.

  24. And right to the point, she should have been removed from the aircraft and likely arrested:

    § 121.580 Prohibition on interference with crewmembers.
    No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated under this part.

    This carries a fine and potential jail.

  25. Is Cho really out of a job? Resigned from all posts at Korean Air doesn’t quite sound the same as no job in the family conglomerate or no pay check.

  26. Lucky,

    Due to travel on KE in First to Thailand on 12/26, returning 1/09. Any guess if the suspensions would really happen and when? Also, if they were to happen and my flights were scrubbed, what do you think the likelihood of KE finding me alternate travel in first on carriers such as OZ, TG, SQ, CX etc.?

    Thanks Lucky!


  27. I hope the South Korean government will take EFFECTIVE measures to ensure that this stupid dictatorial women – and her family who are supporting her behaviour – be completely removed from all positions of power and influence over the airline in the future. The culture which overrules safety regulations by permitting the family to exercise such power must be changed. My recommendation is to AVOID FLYING WITH KOREAN AIRLINES until the Korean government shows the world that this cannot occur again. Shame on those (Sean) who criticize the pilot! He is a victim of the family and had no real authority to disobey this malign little witch. It sounds to me that she belongs north of the border!

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.