Why Is Korean Air’s #NutGate Causing So Much Controversy?

Filed Under: Korean Air

What seems like a relatively minor story has taken the world by storm. I first wrote about the story on Monday, whereby a Korean Air executive turned around a New York to Seoul flight after she was served macadamia nuts in a plastic bag.


After much outrage — in particular in South Korea — she resigned from her position as head of inflight service, though kept her job title as vice president. A day later she resigned from all her duties at Korean Air.

There’s no doubt this story is “nuts,” though I think there’s more merit to both sides than people are giving credit for.


Why she wasn’t completely unjustified in her nutty outrage

A lot of people are saying “how dare she be outraged over being served nuts in a bag instead of on a plate. She was flying as a passenger and should have shut up.”

I actually think her attention to detail was warranted. Keep in mind she was the senior vice president of onboard service. Like, ensuring service is “by the book” is her job. And clearly “the book” wasn’t being followed in this case. To those that disagree, where should the line be drawn? What if the flight attendants read magazines the whole flight instead of serving passengers?

Also keep in mind that apparently the plane wasn’t returning to the gate because she was served nuts in a plastic bag. Apparently after she was served nuts in a plastic bag she called over the cabin service manager to quiz him over some procedures, and he froze/panicked and couldn’t even unlock his iPad with the manual on it.

Let me be clear — in my opinion this doesn’t in any way justify her actions. There’s a better way to handle situations like these, one which doesn’t humiliate your crew and inconvenience your passengers. I think she was completely unjustified in how she responded.

But this story isn’t quite as straightforward as “she was served nuts in a plastic bag and demanded the plane return to the gate.”

Why this caused so much outrage in South Korea

If you think this story blew up in the US, apparently it blew up 10x as much in South Korea. SFGATE has some more context as to why this struck such a chord with the South Korean middle class:

Cho, 40, who is also known as Heather Cho, is married to a prominent plastic surgeon who performed his nips and tucks in Gangnam, a tony district of Seoul famous for its plastic surgery clinics and hip shops.

In 2013, she gave birth to twin boys in Hawaii, entitling them to U.S. citizenship. Korean Air had sent Cho to work in the U.S. two months before her expected delivery date. But within South Korea there was anger that U.S. citizenship meant her sons would be able to avoid South Korea’s two years of compulsory military service for able-bodied males.

Cho’s brother, Won-tae, 38, was investigated by police in 2005 for pushing an elderly woman who confronted him about his reckless driving, the Yonhap news agency reported.

The family patriarch, Cho Yang-ho, 65, was convicted of tax evasion in 2000, facing charges with his father and brother. The Chos were charged with receiving millions in rebates when they purchased airplanes from Boeing and Airbus and evading taxes on the money.

The criticism is particularly directed at the newest generation, which is inheriting the business empires founded by their fathers and grandfathers.

The entire SFGATE article is pretty insightful, so I’d recommend checking it out.

We have plenty of heiresses in the US, though usually they’re smart enough to just be trust fund babies/reality TV stars as opposed to actually taking job titles at their parents’ companies… usually.

Bottom line

The above doesn’t actually change what the outcome should have been, in my opinion. That being said, I do think there was more to both sides than the surface of the story suggested.

(Tip of the hat to Jack)

  1. There’s only so much time and energy we can devote to politics, the economy, and killer rainstorms. So yeah, nuts it is!

  2. that is complete bs. I live in Korea, work in Korea, and am Korean. I have not seen a single article of this, and now that I have asked my colleagues around me in the lab only one had heard of this story. Clearly the SFGate was written by a noob.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong Lucky, I’ve heard that since it happened on a US route, the US could take legal action? Would this go to the situation that Korean Air would be suspended to fly between ICN and SFO or something like that? Then there would temporary be no flights between ICN and SFO since Asiana’s also banned right now?

  4. Inconveniencing a whole plane load of passengers to prove a point was extreme, and although her desire to prove a point has merit, it just shows she’s more about wanting to people to respect (fear) her a-thor-e-tay rather than doing it to improve the passenger experience.

  5. I just thought of Paris Hilton as chief marketing officer for Hilton Worldwide and had to suppress a giggle.

  6. @ Fabio — Asiana having to discontinue flights between ICN and SFO is actually due to Korean law and not due to US law. I can’t imagine there would be any legal implications in the US, as I’m not sure what rules would have been violated.

  7. @ Nasakoto Iakata — Hmm, interesting. Any theory why she not only resigned from her role in inflight service, but the day after also resigned from her role altogether? Can’t imagine it would have happened without a LOT of pressure.

  8. I think a lot of the stories from respected journals, blogs, online commenters, etc. fail to observe many of the cultural differences between the West and Asia (the East). While the growing dissatisfaction with the new generation of elites from the middle class of Korea is certainly an issue, and a large one at that, there’s also the fact that Korean Airlines represents Korea. Any blemish on Korean Air is a blemish on the country and people as a whole, at least in the eyes of the Korean culture.

    It’s not at all unfamiliar for CEOs or politicians to publicly apologize, a la Asiana, after an oversight, incident, accident or other event in which lives, public trust, or large sums of money were lost as a result of some form of negligence or huberis. This is no different.

    There’s outrage on this side of the Pacific because of the presumptuous and ill-tempered nature of Ms. Cho, and the potential inconvenience to an entire plane of passengers. That holds true in Korea, as well, but their anger also takes into account how this reflects on Korea on the world stage.

  9. in this rotten time & technology, every piece of rotten news is extracted & fed into the mass by the LOCAL media/gov/businesses so as not to waste a good garbage/crisis.

  10. Being Korean American and having worked in Seoul for one of the (in)famous jaebol conglomerates, the outrage in Korea echoes the push to move past the country’s third-world past into a true first world democracy. Keep in mind that the country was essentially ruled by one military despot to another until 1992. When I worked there in the mid 2000’s, I was shocked at how rude rich people were when dealing with my retail staff in posh neighborhoods. When I questioned the workers about it, they’d just shrug and reply, “What can I do, they’re rich?”

    Sentiment has changed significantly in recent years with increasing quality of life for more people. Even though the rich are still very entrenched in their socioeconomic status, working/middle class people are finally sitting up and questioning the gap between rich/poor which is most easily seen through the crazy entitlement issues of the wealthy.

  11. @Marcus- I can see how a flight attendant serving nuts directly correlates with her/his knowledge of what to do in an emergency. But, but your comment, it sounds like you’re in her league- spoiled, entitled and lacking any perception of real problems because you’re too busy sucking on a platinum teat.

  12. And if you’re a paying customer, why do you spend time on a blog dedicated to the miles/points game? Hmmmm….

    The only thing worst than an elitist snob is a fake elitist snob.

  13. @Fabio Even if that would happen, United and Singapore Airlines would still be on the route. (SQ flies twice daily to SFO, one refuels in Hong Kong as SQ2, the other in Seoul as SQ16, one is a night departure the other a day departure).

  14. she could have nailed the head FA to a tree for all i care.
    but only after the trip was completed.

    she negated the whole claim of “did it to straighten up customer service” when she ordered the plane to head back to the gate, thus creating a delay for all of the passengers.

  15. @Nasakoto Iakata
    This is so famous story in Korea. I cannot understand you did not hear any news about it.
    And I can guess from your name( or nick..), you are not probably Korean, rather Japanese….
    In the media, they always cover this news as a headline.
    According to Chosun news, she will be investigated by prosecutor as a sin of “high jacking”..

  16. @reine I follow Ben as it is useful to know which specific flight has the latest seat on ANA for example and that seat 3a on SQ has three windows and is a better seat

    So some of us do actually follow Ben to understand which flights and seats are better even if we are revenue passengers

  17. @ Nasakoto Iakata Further to Han’s comment, the story was front page news on The Chosun Ilbo & The Korea Herald, to name two of SK’s national newspapers.

  18. She definitely did not deserved a promotion. Returning the plane to gate was just stupid stupid stupid all around. The cabin service manager did deserve to be reprimanded, but after the flight, once they returned to Seoul. Relieve them of their duty and/or send them back to work in economy. But having the plane returned to the gate and removing them from the plane was beyond asinine.

  19. Hahahahaha!!! Nasakoto Iakata is absolutely a Japanese name, not Korean. I live and work in Korea (I’m American) and I have heard about this everyday this week. In addition to the news, there are so many internet memes being sent around, you can’t open Kakao Talk (Korean messenger app) without regular exposure to the topic.
    Most of my colleagues are absolutely ashamed of this behavior being shown to the outside world. It’s absolutely typical behavior by the big Korean conglomerate companies and the family members which are allowed to take leadership positions whether or not they are capable. (Lee family of Samsung, Jeong family of Hyundai, etc…)
    To be fair, she should have disciplined the person in question, but her lack of restraint is what makes this a story. Again, once you understand this unfortunate part of Korean working culture, it’s not surprising, but now that the whole world has seen it, many people here are quite embarrased.

  20. I’m surprised, Ben, that you need to ask “why the outrage” — and that no one posting in the comments has mentioned the real reason why Cho’s behavior really was outrageous.

    It’s outrageous because Cho’s behavior privileged just one First Class occupant’s very minor problem over the needs and comfort of *hundreds* of other people, most of whom were not in First Class. Every one of those passengers had paid to be flown as expeditiously as possible from New York to Seoul. For a Korean Air executive to throw a tantrum that inconvenienced so many paying passengers is an insult not just to Korean’s customers, but, by extension, to ALL people who can’t afford First Class.

    Remember the old story about President Clinton holding up air traffic at LAX so he could get a haircut aboard Air Force One? If I recall correctly, the story caught on like wildfire and people really resented his behavior. Why do you think that was? This is no different. The actual events in both cases are probably nowhere near as egregious as the press and public have made them out to be, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the optics that count.

  21. Lucky said: “Why Is Korean Air’s #NutGate Causing So Much Controversy?”

    The only genuine controversy I’ve seen about this is on premium travel sites like yours where the treatment of the staff and the needs of coach passengers are largely ignored or even ridiculed by many contributors. Everywhere else there doesn’t seem to be any controversy at all. You have an arrogant and vindictive princess from a family of spoiled hypocrites on one side and nearly everyone else on the other. For me the real question is why she’s the only one taking the fall. I’d kick the spineless captain out as well.

  22. Aside from the “Nut Outrage”, I’m also a bit disturbed over the cabin service manager who in his panic “couldn’t even unlock his iPad with the manual on it.” Why must electronic devices always be viewed as “enhancements”? At least you can’t lose the password to your paper manual.

  23. Who ever wrote this article is completely out of touch. No human should treat another human in such a manner. A breach in procedures should be view as a CONSTRUCTIVE training opportunity. Humiliation and disgustingly bad behavior can NEVER be tolerated or explained away.

  24. This happened in JFK not in South Korea. Why FAA and FBI are not investigating this incident? She goes nuts screaming over nuts and had the plane return to the gate from the taxiway. This should be investigated in U.S. She should be sent to an American jail following the applicable U.S. law. Let’s not forget she did this in JFK, not in Seoul. She may think that all the planes belong to Korean Air are the same as her personal BMW rather than they belong to Korean Air as the company’s commercial planes, but she cannot inconvenience other passengers and disregard their safety. She should not abuse the usage of JFK and the taxiway over her nuts served in a bag.

  25. It’s always the small nuances to a story that make it blow up in today’s day and age of social media where everyone is their own news agency. The fact that this story involved nuts allows anyone and everyone to create clever headlines, memes, and one liners that they could post on facebook, instagram and twitter. As someone who follows the airline industry, you probably realize it really wasn’t about the nuts but about a level of service that is expected to capture first class passengers. There are several competitors trying to capture a very small but extremely profitable segment of the market. But that would be a very boring story.

  26. The above version of the facts is from Korean Air. The story told by the stewardess and the manager is quite different – according to them, the proper procedure for serving said nuts is to show them to the passenger in a packaged state and, if the passenger indicates his/her desire to consume them, then the nuts are placed on a dish and served to the passenger. Cho, however, became furious when the nuts were first shown to her in an unpackaged state and berated the stewardess for not followinig proper protocol. The manager then showed Cho the service manual showing that the stewardess had in fact been following the proper protocol, and this caused Cho to become even more furious. During this process, Cho apparently threw a tantrum, screaming at the manager and the stewardess and hitting them with folders and various other items (despite the manager and stewardess’ statements to the contrary, Cho expressly denied that she did all this; however, a witness – another first-class passenger who had a seat near Cho – has stated that Cho did in fact engage in such conduct). While I have no way of knowing whose version of the facts is correct, I feel that the fact that third-party statements corroborate the manager and stewardess’ story, at least in part, is a sign that the airline’s story should not be taken at face value.

  27. Other comments from posts read in the last 2 weeks are:
    1. as head of the KAL hotel team ‘re-building’ the Wilshire Hotel in L.A. she is the most hated person for her meanness and treating all managers and workers like slaves;

    2. the whole family – BUT ESPECIALLY HER MOM – mistreat KAL workers so much that
    they are referred to as ‘the slave owners’ by many.

    They are not alone as arrogant ‘chaebol’ folks who regularly mistreat their employees but since we have these from KAL in our sights at this time, let’s blow them away.

  28. I truly think you are insane, Lucky. Really, inconvenience every passenger of the plane? Over this?

    I haven’t read every comment, so I don’t know if this was posted. The flight attendant was correct, the spoiled, entitled daughter of the chairman was wrong.

    The policy had been changed, due to the amount of people allergic to nuts. Nuts were to be served in closed bags, not dishes.

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