Former Korean Air vice president Cho Hyun-ah was sentenced Thursday to one year in prison for a plane tantrum dubbed “nut rage,” with a court finding her guilty of diverting an aircraft, a violation of aviation safety law.
The Seoul district court noted that Cho had treated the flight “as if it was her private plane.”
The Seoul-bound aircraft from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York had been towed 55 feet away from the gate but was returned to drop off Park Chang-Jin, the head steward at the time, upon Cho’s orders.
Cho, the daughter of the airline’s chairman, had raged over the way a stewardess served macadamia nuts in the first class cabin, which she claimed should have been offered in a bowl, not in a bag.
The court found her not guilty of interfering with the Transportation Ministry investigation after the incident.
Cho, in custody since Dec. 30, wiped away tears with a tissue as a letter expressing her remorse was read to the court by head judge Oh Seong-woo.
The letter included details about how Cho, one of the richest women in South Korea who regularly flew first class, was adjusting to the basic conditions of her prison and reflecting on her life. “I know my faults and I’m very sorry,” Cho said in her letter.
During the previous trial, Cho admitted to verbal and physical violence throwing a service manual on the floor and pushing one of the female flight attendants with her finger.
But she denied committing physical violence against Park, who had intervened to resolve the confrontation. She then demanded the plane be “stopped” and ordered Park to get off the plane.
“She trampled on my pride and humiliated me. She was yelling like a beast looking for its prey,” Park told the court earlier this month. He also claimed that Cho physically abused him by jabbing his hand with the corner of a service manual, and demanding him to kneel. Cho has denied those claims.
Whether the 55-foot return to the gate should be considered a violation of aircraft safety has been an open debate. But the court sentence clearly reflects widespread public outcry over repeated arrogance with impunity by members of the powerful chaebol family, said Han Sang-hoon, Professor of Law at Yonsei University Law School.
“She deserved to be punished because not only did she alter the flight plans but she abused the staff using her power,” said Kim Kyung-sook, 52.
Details of Cho’s attitude has been at the center of media attention in the past two months ranging from what she wore to initial investigations to how she is coping with daily jail life.
Some believe she might have been a target of a “witch hunt” when public sentiment has been negative towards second and third generation members of high-profile chaebols, who tend to rise the corporate ladder quickly than others, often regardless of merit.
“She simply became a bad example of a bad chaebol member,” said Han.
ABC News’ Minkyeung Cha, Minjun Kim, Yeonjoo Lee, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.