This site has spoken about how some First-Class privileges in airlines are completely nuts. But so are the tantrums of the passengers who occupy the best seats in these exclusive sections of airlines. And we mean literally nuts. This happened in 2014, on the 5th day of that fated December when Korean Airlines flight 086 was set to make its way from JFK International Airport in New York to Incheon International Airport in South Korea. There were 250 passengers on board bracing themselves for the long journey when something went off.
The then Vice-President of the airlines, Heather Cho, was one of the passengers occupying the First-Class seat. One would imagine this to be an ideal reason that the passengers of the flight could rest assured that the plane would depart on time and they’d have the best onboard experience. However, the crew decided to serve macadamia nuts in the First-Class, and that set off a chain of events that led to the creation of a Wikipedia page dedicated to the incident.
Ms. Cho observed that the nuts were served in a packet instead of being served on a plate. She rebuked flight attendant, Kim Do-hee and even escalated the issue to cabin-crew chief Park Chang-jin. One report states that she ordered Chang-jin to get on his knees and ask for her forgiveness for this trivial mistake. She even physically attacked him with a few whacks on his knuckles with a digital tablet. The altercation kept getting more severe till she fired him on the spot. That’s when Cho ordered that the plane return to the gate of departure (which means that it was clearly taxying or awaiting take-off).
So much for putting customers first in the hospitality industry, the entire saga caused a delay of twenty minutes, affecting the schedules of all 250 passengers and causing unnecessary challenges for the air-traffic control at the JFK. Even so, Park Chang-jin decided to let matters settle and not go public, till Cho alleged that he had an affair with his flight crew. That’s when he took matters into the public domain, calling out the ridiculous policies of Korean Airlines. When one angry passenger contacted the airline about the incident, they were ‘pacified’ with a model airplane and a calendar by mail as a token of apology. Cute.
The aggrieved flight attendant was pressured to state that they had quit voluntarily. They even went on record to state that the Transport Ministry’s attempt to investigate the incident would be unreliable and that they would be in cahoots with the airlines. However, the investigation went on to prove that Ms. Cho had a nasty track record when on her inspection flights. She had attacked a flight attendant only a year before this incident for being served improperly cooked ramen noodles. In that instance, the company managed to sweep everything under the carpet, but wasn’t so lucky with the ‘Nutgate’ incident. Thanks to the flight attendant who went to the media right away.
The media trial led to an outcry against Cho and she was forced to resign as Vice President. That’s not all. There were criminal charges that were brought against her, which led her and her father (who is the Chairman of Korean Air) to apologize to the crew and their families. She even attempted visiting the homes of the victims but ended up leaving a note since they were not available on her arrival.
This had strange economic implications on two vastly different things. The rates of Korean Air domestic flights dropped by over 6%. And the price of macadamia nuts soared! One report claims that the price rise was close to 300%. It’s interesting to observe how a nut that is expensive enough to be served to the privileged few in First Class cabins of flights becomes a sensation among the general population, simply because of the latter’s curiosity to know what exact kind of nut warranted such an incident to take place. It’s nuts!
On January 12th, 2015 it was presented to a court that the nuts are traditionally served in a bag according to the airline’s policies, and therefore there was no wrong on part of the flight crew. While the chief didn’t appear, the flight attendant did and testified to being physically assaulted and that she was later bribed with a teaching position at one of the brand’s affiliated institutions. Cho got away with a one-year prison sentence for changing flight course but was released in five months since Seoul High Court found her not guilty of changing the flight’s route. This joy was short-lived, since both, the flight attendant and her chief filed a civil lawsuit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York in March 2015. They accused Cho and the airline of physical attack and verbal abuse. This was dropped because all parties involved were in South Korea.
In yet another suit, the Seoul Western District Court ordered the airline to pay the chief 20 million KRW for coercion (over $16,000) and 30 million KRW (over $24,000) for Cho’s abuse.
There are a bunch of winners and losers in an affair like this. While the nuts gained huge popularity in Korea, the national carrier had some bad press that would be fully illustrated in parody videos and alley-side gossip.