At least she ejected the purser while the plane was still on the ground...
Photoraph by Scott Olson — Getty Images
By Geoffrey Smith
December 9, 2014

You might think that a country situated next to the world’s most notorious nuclear-armed (and apparently cyber-armed) rogue state would have better things to do than argue about how to serve nuts to first-class airplane passengers.

But you would be very, very wrong.

After a week in which all of South Korea appeared to go nuts over this existential question, Cho Hyun-Ah, the protagonist in the scandal (also known as Heather), has resigned with a public apology.

Cho, the 40-year old daughter of Korean Air Lines Co. Chairman Cho Yang Ho and a vice-president of the airline herself, had been preparing to take off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Incheon on KAL Flight 86 when a flight attendant served her macadamia nuts in a paper bag, rather than a dish. Some reports suggest she was also upset at not being asked first whether she wanted the nuts in the first place

When Cho summoned the plane’s chief purser to ask why the flight attendant wasn’t abiding by the company’s in-flight service manual, she was so unimpressed with the answer that she ordered the plane back to the departure gate and ejected the unfortunate purser, according to media reports.

As a result of the delay, the plane arrived a full 11 minutes late in Incheon. (Yep, I know what you’re thinking: 11 minutes.)

The incident rapidly became a national cause célèbre, with the nation dividing deeply and bitterly. For some, Ms. Cho was just being a perfectionist, rightly insisting on upholding the standards of service that customers of Asian airlines in particular have become accustomed to. For others, she was a stuck-up, overbearing princess with a point to prove about her own importance who needed to be taken down a peg or two.

Ultimately, the latter have won the public debate. It may not have been quite the epoch-making moment where the perennially self-effacing minions of the Korean service sector turned and revolted, but it has exposed a broad groundswell of resentment against the gilded class of corporate aristocrats that run the country’s biggest business groups, or chaebols.

Ms Cho (and the airline, which defended her) lost the debate due to her perceived belief that rules were for only for little people. In ordering the plane back to the terminal, critics say, she violated Korean regulations that say the pilot has control over the plane and that a taxiing aircraft should only return to the terminal if the pilot thinks passenger safety is at risk.

Korean Airlines has said the decision to eject the purser was made in consultation with the pilot, but the public quickly made up its mind about how that ‘consultation’ played out.

If the Twitter translations are to be believed, no punishment for Ms. Cho would be harsh enough for some. But for the more enlightened, who merely wish to correct her sense of perspective, perhaps a few flights in coach with (fill in the U.S. or European airline of your nightmares here) might be a decent start…

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