Nut rage spat latest stumble for Korean Air family

Seoul — When South Koreans heard that a Korean Air Lines executive delayed a flight because she was angry at being served macadamia nuts in a bag there was outrage but no surprise.

For many it was only the latest example of the high and mighty behavior they'd come to expect from the families who make up Korea's dynastic business elite and dominate the economy.

In the headline hogging incident now dubbed "nut rage," Cho Hyun-ah, the airline's head of cabin service and daughter of its chairman, ordered a senior crew member off the plane, forcing it to return to the gate at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City.

Cho had quarreled with flight attendants in first class after one of them offered her bagged nuts instead of nuts served on a plate. Amid the storm of criticism, Cho resigned Tuesday as head of cabin service but remained an executive at the airline. That sparked another furor and Cho on Wednesday submitted a letter of resignation quitting all her roles.

Also see: Nuts! Korean flight delayed due to first class spat

Korean Air had defended her actions as a "natural" attempt to improve customer service. Yet for a public that has lost patience with impunity and double standards, it was an ugly display of entitlement. The local media labeled her "princess."

The Cho family has a history of making headlines in South Korea.

Cho Hyun-ah, 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 eldest 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 nut rage incident, however, struck a particular chord as it comes at a time when growing inequality and safety issues are on the minds of South Koreans. There are also growing calls to better treat service industry workers.

Also see: Shameless people on planes

On an online forum used by Korean Air pilots, there was an outpouring of complaints about the behavior of the Cho family in their running of the airline.

In South Korea, there was once respect for the families that founded the industrial conglomerates that helped modernize the country and make it wealthy. Nowadays there is growing criticism of ostentatious wealth and unfettered power.

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

Cho and her two siblings rose quickly to the top ranks of the airline, holding executive roles in it and affiliate companies.

The Cho family, through its Hanjin conglomerate, has controlled Korean Air Lines since 1969 when it bought the monopoly state airline from the government.

It is now a major Asian carrier, but its early years were dogged by multiple plane crashes. Korean Air was also infamous for low wages and demanding schedules for pilots.

The family's direct stake in Korean Air is just 10% but cross-shareholdings among Hanjin companies give it effective control.

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