A SOUTH Korean court yesterday ordered that a former Korean Air vice-president whose onboard “nut rage” delayed a flight from New York last year be released from prison.
Cho Hyun-ah, also known as Heather Cho, was head of the airline’s cabin service and daughter of its chairman.
She had been jailed for a year by a lower court in February but this was cut to ten months, suspended for two years yesterday by the upper court.
Cho, 40, had been in custody since her arrest after she ordered chief flight attendant Park Chang-jin off a flight from New York on 5 December last year, forcing the taxiing plane to return to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport terminal.
Her tantrum was triggered when Mr Park served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a dish. Cho had a heated, physical confrontation with crew.
Mr Park said she “was like a beast that found its prey, gritting its teeth as she became abusive, not listening to what I had to say at all”.
Swarmed by reporters outside Seoul High Court yesterday, she made no comment, bowing her head and burying her face in her hands.
The incident was a lightning rod for anger in a country where the economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol that often act above the law.
Mr Park said of her behaviour: “I don’t think Cho showed an ounce of conscience, treating powerless people like myself like feudal slaves, forcing us to sacrifice and treating it as if it was the natural thing to do.”
The lower court had convicted Cho of forcing a flight to change its route, obstructing the flight’s captain in his duties, forcing a crew member off a plane and assaulting him. It found her not guilty of interfering with a transport ministry investigation. Cho pleaded not guilty and prosecutors had called for three years in prison.
The aviation security law is meant to regulate highly dangerous acts such as hijacking. But the upper court said yesterday that there was not a big safety threat posed by Cho’s actions, and turning back a plane that was taxiing did not constitute a change in the plane’s route.
Kim Sang-hwan, head of the three-judge panel, said Cho should be given a second chance. The judge also cited her “internal change” since she began serving her prison term as a reason for lessening the sentence.
The court also took into consideration that Cho is the mother of two-year-old twins and had no prior record. She has resigned from the airline.
“The court went easy on her. I feel angry when people mistreat other people in lower ranks,” commented 19-year-old student Kim Ryeong-hui.