Korean Air ‘nut rage’ chief denies safety breach

Ms Cho Hyun-ah arrives for questioning at the plane rage investigation in Seoul. Picture: AP
Ms Cho Hyun-ah arrives for questioning at the plane rage investigation in Seoul. Picture: AP
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THE former Korean Air executive notorious for an in-flight tantrum over macadamia nuts yesterday pleaded not guilty to violating aviation safety law.

Lawyers for Cho Hyun-ah did not dispute the major elements of the prosecutor’s account of events on 5 December, when Cho’s behaviour resulted in a Korean Air jet returning to airport the gate. Instead, they are focusing on a technical rebuttal.

Cho spent most of the first day of her trial with head lowered, declining to make any comment. Her attorney, Yu Seung-nam, said she was unable to mentally recover from her ordeal as she has been “beaten” by the media.

Cho, the daughter of Korean Air’s chairman, achieved worldwide notoriety when she ordered the chief attendant off a flight after a crew member offered her macadamia nuts in a bag, instead of on a dish. At the time, Cho was the airline’s vice-president of cabin service.

Her behaviour, dubbed “nut rage”, caused uproar in South Korea, touching a nerve in a country dominated by family-run conglomerates, known as “chaebol”, that often act above the law.

Cho has been in custody since 30 December and faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of all four charges. In the most serious charge, with a maximum of ten years, she is accused her of forcing a flight to change route. The three other charges she faces are using violence against crew, hindering a government inquiry and forcing the flight’s purser off the plane.

Her lawyer told a panel of three judges that the plane had moved only 17m from the gate at New York’s John F Kennedy airport before it returned and this did not amount to a forced change of route.

Cho admitted using violence against one flight attendant by pushing her and throwing an object at her, but denied poking the chief flight attendant, Park Chang-jin, with a book. Her lawyer argued that those acts did not amount to threatening safety on the flight.

Prosecutor Kim Tae-hoon told the court that a flight attendant who witnessed Cho’s tantrum was nervous throughout the 14-hour flight.

“The moment her anger erupted, the vice-president did not look like a human. She looked like an angry tiger,” he said, reading from the flight attendant’s statement.

Head judge Oh Seong-woo said the judges want to ascertain whether the chief flight attendant, Mr Chang-jin, will be able to continue working for ­Korean Air and as a result has summoned the airline’s chairman, Cho Yang-ho, as a witness.

“Cho Hyun-ah will likely return to society, although we don’t know when,” the judge said in remarks that ended six hours of proceedings. “But for the case of Park Chang-jin … whether he can work at Korean Air Lines is of keen interest to the judges.”

Two other defendants also pleaded not guilty. Korean Air executive Yeo Woon-jin is charged with interfering with the investigation and a transport official is charged with leaking information about the investigation.

Mr Yeo insisted he did not know Cho’s actions could result in a criminal case even after prosecutors showed evidence that flight attendants reported the incident to him in detail.

Prosecutors also highlighted an e-mail showing that he had asked a customer service official to help prevent legal action against Cho by giving special treatment to a passenger who sat near her.