Heather Cho, daughter of Korean Air Lines Co. Chairman Cho Yang Ho, resigned after her decision to remove an employee from a plane over the service of macadamia nuts created a public backlash.
Cho, 40, had been the vice president for cabin service and catering at the Seoul-based airline. Her father presided over the meeting of directors that accepted her resignation, the carrier said yesterday.
“I apologize to the customers and the public for causing social issues and to those who have been hurt by my actions,” Heather Cho said in the statement. “I will take full responsibility and resign from all my positions.”
Her actions were criticized by South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in an editorial yesterday saying they were an example of the “sense of privilege” felt by families running the country’s chaebols, or business conglomerates.
“Heather Cho had to resign to put out the immediate fire,” said Park Ju Gun, president of corporate watchdog CEOSCORE in Seoul. “Once this dies down, she’ll probably come back. As long as ownership and management aren’t separated in companies, this will continue to happen.” Heather Cho will retain her role as president of Kal Hotel Network Co., which oversees the operations of the airline’s hotels, the company said.
“She may be able to scold the crew member for inappropriate service as vice president, but aviation law clearly states that it is the captain who supervises the flight crew,” Dong-A Ilbo said in its editorial.
Korean Air shares yesterday rose 5.6 percent to 48,800 won in Seoul, the highest price since March 2013. The stock has gained 56 percent this year, compared with the 2 percent decline in the Kospi Index.
Heather Cho ordered the head of the service crew on Flight 86 from New York to Seoul to deplane on Dec. 5 after an attendant earlier had served her macadamia nuts without asking, the carrier said Dec. 8. Cho then summoned the purser to ask a question about the airline’s policy on serving nuts. She ordered the plane back to the gate and instructed the man to leave the plane when he couldn’t answer.
Under the carrier’s rules, passengers must be asked first before serving.
The aircraft had already left the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport for takeoff when the incident happened. It took no more than 2 minutes to return to the gate to deplane the crew member, according to the airline. The flight was 11 minutes late when it arrived in Seoul Dec. 6.
Korean Air apologized on Dec. 8 to passengers for the inconvenience caused and noted the plane was less than 10 meters (33 feet) from the gate at JFK when the decision to return was made. The Airbus A380 had about 250 passengers and 20 cabin crew.
A call to Korean Air’s main number in Seoul seeking a comment from Heather Cho went to an automated answering service.
South Korea’s Transport Ministry said Dec. 8 it was investigating reports by Yonhap News and YTN about a Korean Air vice president ordering a crew member to deplane, according to an e-mailed statement that didn’t mention either Cho or the specific incident. Action will be taken against the carrier if it flouted any regulations, the ministry said.
Cho, who went to Cornell University, joined South Korea’s largest carrier in 1999, according to a biography posted on the website of Singapore’s Nanyang Business School. She is a member of the school’s advisory board. Cho managed Korean Air’s catering and in-flight sales business, cabin service and hotel business divisions.
Cho and Korean Air executives should take responsibility for the incident and not blame the cabin crew, the airline’s pilots union said on their website yesterday.
“Cho should be held responsible because she had used her authority to have the pilot return the plane to the gate,” the union said in the statement. “Cho and the management have damaged the company’s reputation.”
Her father is also chairman of the Hanjin Group of companies that includes Korean Air, Hanjin Shipping Co. and Hanjin Transportation Co. He’s also the president of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics organizing committee. Chairman Cho also apologized for the incident, Asia Economic Daily reported today.
–With assistance from Yoolim Lee in Singapore.
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