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Nut Rumpus Prompts Korean Airline Exec To Apologize And Resign

Cho Hyun-ah, whose family runs Korean Air, caused a stir over the weekend after she demanded that a Korea-bound jetliner return to a gate at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where it had been preparing to take off.

The reason? Seated in first class, Cho was angered that a junior steward served her macadamia nuts — in a bag instead of on a plate, and without asking first. When a senior steward struggled to cite the proper regulations, Cho had him kicked off the flight, forcing the plane holding some 250 passengers to return to the gate before it could depart for Incheon, South Korea.

Cho is the daughter of Korean Air Chairman and CEO Cho Yang-ho. Fallout from the incident has forced Cho, who's also known by the first name Heather, to resign her post as a vice president at the airline, where her duties included cabin service and in-flight sales.

"I will step down to take responsibility over the incident," Cho said Tuesday, according to the Korea Herald. "I also beg the forgiveness of those who may have been hurt by my actions, and offer my apologies to our customers."

But it's unclear whether Cho's resignation is from a single post or from the entire airline. Reuters reports that she "will remain a vice president with the South Korean flag carrier, the airline said late on Tuesday."

The airline did not assuage its critics when it insisted, at first, that the JFK incident was merely a case of maintaining standards.

"News of Cho's outburst spread quickly on social media," Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reports, "causing the carrier major embarrassment and confirming every suspicion Koreans entertain about the spoiled brats from big conglomerate families."

Many South Koreans are uneasy with the country's "chaebol" giants, The Financial Times says, referring to international conglomerates that are often operated under a family's centralized authority. The newspaper says relatives "often wield undue influence over management of group companies in spite of their small direct shareholdings."

The case also raised concerns about a possible breach in the airline's safety regulations, which place each plane under the pilot's responsibility. The Chosun Ilbo says a government regulatory agency's early report found that the chief steward reported the problem to the pilot, and that the pilot then orchestrated the return to a gate at JFK.

As aviation buffs will recall, Korean Air served as one of writer Malcolm Gladwell's examples of the dangers of hierarchical traditions in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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