It looked as if things could not get worse for the South Korean airline executive mocked around the world this week for throwing a tantrum over a bag of nuts.
Then her father, the chairman of the airline, stripped his 40-year-old daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, of the titles she still had in the family-run conglomerate. He apologized on live television Friday for her "foolish′′ behavior, when she forced her plane back to the gate and then kicked off the head steward after being served macadamia nuts in their bag, rather than on a plate.
“I failed to raise her properly,” said the chairman, Cho Yang-ho, who bowed deeply and asked to take the blame, showing contrition in the traditional South Korean way when one′s child misbehaves.
As if that was not enough, the head steward on the flight spoke up after days of silence, telling Korea′s KBS-TV on Friday that Cho′s daughter had forced him to kneel down and apologize on the plane as punishment for the way one of his stewards served the nuts to passengers in first class. The head steward was kicked off the aircraft when it returned to the gate.
“You can′t imagine the humiliation I felt unless you experienced it yourself,” the steward, Park Chang-jin, said, adding that Cho called him names, hit him several times with a folder of documents and hurled it at the junior steward.
Cho later denied hitting Park or forcing him to kneel, making her statement as she emerged from questioning by government investigators looking into whether her actions violated aviation law. But if Park′s story bears out, it is likely to stoke already seething anger at the country′s family owned conglomerates - or chaebol - whose leaders have a reputation for imperious behavior and treating their employees like feudal subjects.
Forcing people to kneel in apology, a once-common punishment, has, after all, fallen out of fashion in South Korea.
About the only good news, at least for business, came from macadamia nut purveyors who told local media that sales were surging. Some seemed to be having fun at Cho′s expense, with one telling customers online that the nuts would be delivered “in an unopened package.”
Anger at the nation′s chaebol has risen in recent years as many people blame widening economic inequality in South Korea on the conglomerates′ rapid expansion. The latest accusations of abuse by Cho have led already to a new chorus of critical editorials.
“In this case, we see not only a violation of an aviation law but also the imperial abuse of an owner family” the mass-circulation daily JoongAng Ilbo said in an editorial. Another editorial, in the daily Kyunghyang Shinmun, urged prosecutors to use Cho′s case as a warning to chaebol families that “act as if they were above the law.”
The newspaper also referred to other cases of what it called “depraved conduct” by chaebol families, including one in which a member of the family that controls SK Group, a telecommunications and petrochemicals conglomerate, received a suspended prison term for beating a former union activist with an aluminum bat.
In his statements to KBS, the head steward said he had not felt able to stand up to Cho because she was “a daughter of the owner” of his company. KBS also quoted Park as claiming that Korean Air officials later tried to hush the scandal by asking him to tell investigators that he left the plane of his own will.
Korean Air had earlier accused Park of “ignoring regulations and procedures” of in-flight services and of trying to defend his crew′s mistake with “excuses and lies.” But the airline also admitted that Cho′s decision to remove him from the flight was “excessive.”
On Tuesday, after the episode on the flight bound for Incheon, South Korea, from New York′s Kennedy Airport had become public, Cho resigned as head of the airline′s in-flight services. She retained her title as vice president until Friday, however. At that point, her father said he would deprive Cho, his eldest child, of that job and her other executive posts at his sprawling conglomerate, Hanjin Group, which owns hotel, shipping and logistics businesses as well as Korean Air.
South Korean aviation law bars passengers from acts that could endanger a plane′s safety, such as shouting, using threatening language or otherwise causing a disturbance. Local media has reported that Cho “raised hell” during the Dec. 5 episode, screaming at crew members. Prosecutors are also investigating whether Korean Air tried to cover up the episode and raided the airline′s offices Thursday as part of its investigation.
There have been calls online to boycott the airline, and a parody video of a Korean Air commercial online had more than a half-million views, and counting. The commercial called the airline “Peanut Air.”
On Friday, Cho seemed chastened by the public embarrassment. As she arrived for questioning at the offices of South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, she spoke in a barely audible whisper with her head bowed as a scrum of journalists snapped photos and thrust microphones in her face. She then said she would apologize in person to the crew members she was accused of abusing.