Korean Air is one of the best known airlines on the planet. Its safety record is impeccable, the service is highly reviewed, and those bright blue planes are quite the treat to plane spot.

However, KAL is not so well liked at home, at times. Not for their service, but for who runs them. The parent company of KAL is the Hanjin Group, known in Korea as an archetypal “Chaebol.”

I’m not so well-versed in the inner-workings of Korean Economy, but from everything I’ve read, it sounds a lot like the Zaibatsu or Keiretsu of Japanese fame, entities I’m well-educated in. Basically, these groups are family-run vertically-integrated public companies, the majority of shares owned within the family, and the head of the family has immense power, both over the company and over the society of which it operates in…or even in the case of Lotte, a sweets manufacturer, in multiple societies. Korean Air’s position as one of Korea’s leading chaebol groups often comes with some public backlash against the Hanjin group’s owners, the Cho family.

Back in 2014, things really came to a head when the daughter/vice president of in-flight service, Heather Cho, forced a JFK-origin ICN-bound KAL jet to return to the gate at JFK. Now, one unaware of the situation might have assumed something was wrong with the plane not being properly being prepared for the long flight to Korea (the JFK-ICN flight is quite a long flight), and the head of in-flight service of the company ordered the plane back to the gate to have maintenance or something come on board and take care of the situation. This is not what happened. It’s not what KAL said happened, but I think I just did KAL a favor by giving this hypothesis. Y’all can paypal me any amount of money you’d like now if you decide to keep using this hypothesis, KAL.

Here’s what really happened. I’m going to post the wiki article to the incident here in this hyperlink and, although wikipedia isn’t much of a viable source of info, this article, when read, is quite the time-passer.

Ms. Heather Cho was a passenger on that flight, sitting in the first class cabin. As is standard affair before a flight, the cabin attendants in the first class cabin will pass out packets of nuts or snacks or offer a pre-flight drink, as was the case on this KAL flight. According to the wiki page, the standard procedure is to serve the nuts in its original packing, plus a bowl. That’s the procedure on literally every first class flight I’ve ever taken. It’s safer and gives the passengers options to eat the snack whenever they feel like it, because the tray tables need to be stowed before takeoff.

However, Ms. Cho incorrectly assumed the proper way to serve the nuts was in a bowl itself. She lost her mind, assaulted the flight attendant that served her the nuts, and then had a ‘heated argument’ with the chief flight attendant onboard. She reportedly made him kneel down and beg forgiveness while repeatedly striking him as well. Then, she ordered the flight to return to the gate and have the flight attendants removed from the flight.

As you can expect, this incident caused a massive amount of outrage, both toward Ms. Cho, and toward the airline and its holding company. The flight attendants filed lawsuits, and South Korean Authorities arrested Ms. Cho for a violation of airline safety rules. Now I didn’t know one could be arrested for something like this…the incident happening in the USA at a USA airport. But since the incident happened onboard a Korean-flagged airliner, South Korean aviation safety laws will apply, as well.

One would think that was the end of the situation, right? The Korean authorities arresting the executive of the airline that caused the situation. Nope. The situation got worse.

The last linked article that talked about Ms. Cho’s arrest stated that other airline officials were arrested because the two flight attendants were FORCED to lie about the situation to Korean authorities. The officials from KAL also forced the chief flight attendant to delete the initial incident report email from a company laptop. This blatant coverup was exposed when the forced false statements by the flight attendants and the lie by Ms. Cho were completely exposed as false by the witnesses in the first class cabin, and by the flight attendants who went to the media to expose the story themselves. The statements made by the flight attendants to the media were directly backed up by the passengers themselves, and that’s when the story blew up in Korea, sales of macadamia nuts skyrocketing in Korea, and the airline, daughter of the owner/owners themselves being chastised, penalized, and ridiculed.

This article by The Atlantic explains a lot about the situation as a whole with Chaebol. They wield so much power and have such a nepotism problem, that any bad press or bad situation revolving around the company is never the fault of the family. The more the situation unravels, the more the chaebol will try to cover up the situation. In the day of social media (and aviation blogs like this posting about it 4 years later), these chaebol do not have so much of an ability to exert their power and silence dissent for pretty obvious situations that NEED proper discussion, debate (albeit it’s kind of hard to debate how much of a problematic person Ms. Cho is here), and simple awareness, such as Nutgate.

Korean Air has always been known for their onboard service, their safety record, and their great atmosphere. I haven’t had the pleasure yet of flying onboard KAL, and this situation doesn’t really dampen my desire to fly them. If I ever find myself in need of flying to Korea, I’ll obviously consider KAL as part of my itinerary planning. I’m only saying here that this incident shows a wider problem in the management techniques of South Korean (and, in some similar cases, Japanese keiretsu) conglomerates. Eventually their management techniques will backfire and cause major problems…or a PR disaster, like what happened here. Traditional Japanese management techniques have not worked for Japan for quite some time since the recession, and I can’t imagine Korean economy continuing to flourish if modernization of management isn’t properly implemented.

Each time I eat macadamia nuts, though, the image of Heather Cho crying during her arrest will always sprout in my mind. Let’s just hope that this horrible situation has changed her, as she recently took a new position at one of Hanjin’s other companies…KAL Hotels…

…maybe in a few years a story is going to pop up about how she threw soap and shampoo at a housemaid for not serving them in a proper soapdish…

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