Cho Hyun-ah, also known as Heather Cho, was a vice president at Korean Air. She holds a bachelor's degree from Cornell University and an MBA from the University of Southern California, and is the eldest daughter of Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho, making her an important figure in the family business that runs South Korea's national carrier.
However, she has been forced to resign after an unfortunate case of managerial misconduct went viral over the weekend. The spark for her sudden downfall is remarkably simple: macadamia nuts.
According to Yonhap News Agency, the 40-year-old Cho was at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday. Sitting in first class aboard a Korean Air due to fly to Seoul, Cho was handed some macadamia nuts by a flight attendant, though she had not asked for any. Worse still, the nuts were handed to her in a bag, and not on a plate, as per Korean Air rules.
Cho was dismayed by the flouting of company guidelines. After reprimanding the flight attendant who handed her the nuts, she demanded that the plane, now on the taxiway, return to the gate and that chief flight attendant exit the plane. Witnesses told the Korea Times that she shouted during the incident. The flight, with 250 people aboard, was delayed by 11 minutes as a result.
After news of the incident began to spread, Korean Air responded by telling reporters that Cho had the support of the pilot in her decision. Ensuring Korean Air flights keep their high standards was part of her job, the airline explained, and the journey back to the gate had taken just a few minutes. However, it didn't take long for what was deemed her "nut rage" to spark a political backlash.
"Why did she have to make all that fuss because of some stupid macadamia nuts?" the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the main opposition party in South Korea, said in a statement. "She soiled the reputation of our flag carrier.” The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport soon pledged to investigate Cho's conduct to determine whether there was any violation of the law. "Even if she is the vice president of the airline, she was one of the passengers and should have been treated as one," one unnamed official told reporters on Monday.
Cho's family position only added to the criticism. In a country where dynasties are common in the business world, her actions were interpreted as a sign of the arrogance and entitlement that can come with those "chaebol" dynasties. On Tuesday, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper published a damning editorial that said her actions betrayed the sense of privilege and arrogance among the tycoon families.
Cho Yang-ho offered his apologies for the event on Tuesday, and later that day, his daughter resigned. “I will step down to take responsibility over the incident,” she said in a statement. “I also beg the forgiveness of those who may have been hurt by my actions, and offer my apologies to our customers.”