The Flight That Went Nuts

In mid-December of 2014, South Korean grocers reported a massive, 250% uptick in the sale of macadamia nuts from the month prior. The spike in snack food was neither the result of a Christmas-related custom (there isn’t any such custom) nor did the increase in sales come from a study extolling the health benefits of the nuts (and similarly, there was no such study). Rather, the easiest way to explain the phenomenon was schadenfreude.

On December 5, 2014, a 40-year-old Korean Air executive named Cho Hyan-ah — or in the English-speaking press, Heather Cho — boarded Flight 086 at New York City’s JFK Airport en route to South Korea. A vice president at the airline and the daughter of Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, Heather Cho was given just about every perk available on such a flight: her first-class ticket probably had a lot of legroom, free WiFi, boozy aperitifs, etc. For certain, Ms. Cho was offered a bag of macadamia nuts while the plane was still waiting to leave JFK. That’s where the problems began.

The nuts, all parties agree, were served to Cho unceremoniously; flight attendant Kim Do-hee simply handled Cho the nuts in their original sealed packaging. Whether that should have happened was debatable, but not to Cho — she believed, and insisted, that the nuts be served to her on a plate. And she wasn’t going to let a seemingly minor infraction pass. Per most accounts, Cho admonished Kim and then demanded to see the attendant crew chief, Park Chang-jin. Cho asked Park “about the proper procedure for food service in first class,” per the Wall Street Journal, and “unsatisfied with his response, she demanded that he get off the plane.” Cho insisted that the pilots return the flight back to the gate. The flight and its 250 passengers were delayed by 20 minutes so that Park could be removed from the flight.

The story didn’t end there, though. The ridiculous had only begun. Even though Cho announced her resignation from the airline five days after the incident, Korean Airr didn’t let the matter go. The airline, perhaps because of Ms. Cho’s familial connection to the chairman, tried to cover for her churlish behavior; per the Associated Press, both Park and Kim were “pressured to lie to government investigators to cover up the incident and to appear in public with Cho as part of an orchestrated effort to try and rehabilitate Cho’s public image.” And that government investigation was a serious matter. In 2015, Cho was convicted of “obstructing aviation safety,” according to the BBC, and sentenced to one year in prison for the crime. She ended up serving five months before being released.

And when Cho exited prison? It turned out there was still a job waiting for her. Even though she resigned as a vice president of Korean Air, she retained other roles with the company and others affiliated with the airline — until 2018. That year, her sister, Cho Hyun-min (“Emily Cho”) got into a tiff as well — as the Guardian reported, Emily, a senior vice president at Korean Air in charge of marketing, “allegedly hurled a cup of water at an advertising agency official during a meeting” and apologized via Facebook “saying the outburst was sparked by her passion for commercials.” When news of this outburst spread, Mr. Cho finally fired both his daughters.

Bonus fact: Macadamia nuts probably aren’t a significant contributor to air rage, but first-class seating may be. According to a 2016 paper, “Air rage is more common in economy class on airplanes, where inequality is physically present.” As Gizmodo explains, “The presence of a first-class cabin caused a noticeable spike in air rage incidents among economy class passengers. The chances that an economy class passenger will become unruly or non-compliant is 3.84 times greater when a first-class section is present. The researchers say that’s equivalent to a 9-hour flight delay in terms of its psychological effect on passengers.”

From the Archives: How to Fly With a Cello: It needs a seat, and it doesn’t get mad about the nuts.