SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean prosecutors on Wednesday charged the former Korean Air Lines executive who achieved worldwide notoriety by kicking a crew member off a flight with violating aviation security law and hindering a government investigation.
Cho Hyun-ah, who is the daughter of the airline’s chairman, ordered a senior crewmember off a Dec. 5 flight after being offered macadamia nuts in a bag, instead of on a dish. The plane returned to the gate at John F. Kennedy airport to disembark the flight attendant.
Cho’s actions amounted to “threatening the safety of the flight and causing confusion in law and order,” prosecutor Kim Chang-hee said during a briefing that was broadcast live by local television networks.
She could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of all four charges she faces, according to Attorney Park Jin Nyoung, spokesman for the Korean Bar Association. Prosecutors accused her of forcing a flight to change its normal route, which Park said was the most serious charge with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. The three other charges she faces are the use of violence against flight crew, hindering a government probe and forcing the flight’s purser off the plane.
Separately, prosecutors have widened their investigation into the “nut rage” incident to examine the ties between the airline and the transport ministry after it was criticized for going too easy on South Korea’s largest airline. The majority of transport ministry investigators involved in the probe previously worked at Korean Air.
Kim said that Korean Air executives and employees interfered with the transport ministry’s investigation by destroying documents and fabricating evidence. He said a current executive at the airline was charged with destroying evidence and interfering with the probe. A transport ministry official was indicted for leaking secrets about the investigation. Cho, the executive and the official were arrested last month and remain in custody.
Cho, who was Korean Air’s vice-president overseeing cabin service, shamed and insulted crewmembers by yelling, throwing an object at the cabin wall and forcing them to kneel before her, according to witnesses.
Cho’s behaviour caused an uproar in South Korea and the airline’s defence of her and its attempt to blame the crew member prompted more criticism. The incident touched a nerve in a country where the economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol that often act above the law.
The first statement from Korean Air Lines blamed the crewmember for mishandling passenger service. Later, the crewmember Park Chang-jin told local media that Korean Air executives visited his home and pressured him to lie to government investigators.
Cho’s father, the Korean Air chairman, has removed his daughter from all her roles at the airline and its affiliates and apologized for not raising her properly.
The Cho family’s direct stake in Korean Air is just 10 per cent but cross-shareholdings among Hanjin conglomerate companies owned by the family give it effective control.
Kim said prosecutors are also investigating whether Cho travelled for free in first class on Korean Air and whether the airline gave upgrades to transport ministry officials.
The transport ministry, after coming under fire for lacking impartiality in its investigation, said last month it would punish four officials for misconduct during the Korean Air investigation.