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Nut rage incident

An incident, known informally as the nut rage incident, nutgate, or nut return (Korean: 땅콩 회항) in South Korea, took place on December 5, 2014, at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Then-Korean Air vice president Heather Cho, having been dissatisfied with the way a flight attendant served her nuts on the plane, ordered the aircraft to taxi back to the airport's gate before takeoff.

First-class passengers, including Cho, were given nuts bagged in their original packaging (in conformity with the airline's procedures); Cho had expected them to be served on a plate in first class. Cho questioned the cabin crew chief about the standard procedure of serving the nuts. After a heated confrontation during which she assaulted him, she ordered him off the plane, requiring a return to the gate and delaying the flight by about 20 minutes. When the incident became public there was much criticism of Cho and Korean Air, leading to Cho resigning from her post. She was subsequently found guilty in Korean court of obstructing aviation safety and given a twelve-month prison sentence.


  • Initial incident and official report 1
  • Controversy 2
  • Litigation 3
    • Trial 3.1
    • Civil suit 3.2
  • Television parody 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Initial incident and official report

Macadamia nuts in a bowl

On December 5, 2014, Heather Cho (Korean name: Cho Hyun-ah; Hangul: Korean: 조현아), a businesswoman who was then the vice-president of Korean Air and the chief executive officer of KAL Hotel Network, as well as daughter of Korean Air chairman and CEO Cho Yang-ho,[1] boarded Korean Air Flight 86 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, destined for Incheon International Airport in South Korea.[2] Prior to takeoff, she was served macadamia nuts in a closed bag rather than on a plate.[3][4][5]

Upon being served the nuts in a bag, Cho rebuked the flight attendant,[5] Kim Do Hee,[6] and called a cabin crew chief, Park Chang-jin,[6] with complaints.[5] It was alleged that, under Cho's orders, the chief was forced to kneel down before her and beg for forgiveness. Cho repeatedly struck his knuckles with the edge of a digital tablet, and immediately dismissed him.[7] Cho ordered the chief to get off the plane, requiring it to taxi back to the airport's gate. Initially, the chief allegedly agreed with executives to refrain from making public statements and disclosing the incident to officials, but when he and the flight attendant heard about Cho's apparent attempts to spread false rumors of sexual relations between the flight attendant and chief, he decided to file an official complaint. The incident created a delay of approximately 20 minutes for the flight with 250 people on board.[4][5][8][9]

Korean Air issued an apology to passengers, but attempted to justify Cho's action, saying it was in accordance with her job of inspecting in-flight service and airplane safety. They apologized for the inconvenience.[4][9] Initially, the minister of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said that the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board was investigating the case.[4] An aggrieved first class passenger contacted the airline about the incident she observed, and received a model airplane and a calendar in the mail by way of apology.[10]


Following the flight attendant's dismissal, the airline contacted him over a dozen times, pressuring him to tell the Korean transport authorities that he had voluntarily resigned. Two members of the supposedly independent investigative team assigned to the incident were former Korean Air employees.[11] According to the flight attendant, Korean Air officials were present at the investigation and were allowed to ask him questions. He believed that the government investigation would be unjust, and instead reported the incident directly to the media, initiating a public furor.[2]

After the incident was made public, it was revealed that Cho had attacked a flight attendant in 2013 after being served improperly cooked ramen noodles. This incident had been covered up by the airline, which found no wrongdoing.[12] According to the police, a company executive ordered employees to delete records of the nut rage incident.[13] It was also known that Heather Cho's representative, Korean Air, pressured the victims (flight attendant and the chief) to lie about the incident, and downplay what happened while being publicly questioned. But unaffiliated witnesses (including a first-class passenger) corroborated the victims' accounts by describing how Cho threw the packet of nuts and physically attacked the employees, and the futile plan was leaked, stirring the controversy even further.[14] Cho herself denied any such actions despite widespread skepticism.[15]

When the incident became public, there was popular indignation against Cho and Korean Air. Korean Air responded to public outrage by forcing Cho to resign from her job as vice-president. Despite the early cover-up, criminal charges were later brought against her.[16] It was thought that Korean Air could be fined around US$2 million.[17] Because of the controversy, Cho resigned her vice-presidency in Korean Air.[18][19] She initially said she would resign from all positions, but actually kept her position as chairperson of Korean Air, president of KAL Hotel Network and Hanjin Tour.[9] She attended the investigation of Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board on December 12,[20] saying she would issue an apology to the cabin crew chief and flight attendant in question.[8][20] Cho's father, Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, also apologized for his daughter's "foolish act". Heather Cho visited the homes of the cabin crew chief and flight attendant to apologize in person, but left them notes because they were not at home.[21]

One of the reasons for the widespread press coverage of the incident, particularly in Korea, is that it illustrates the apparent widespread power (and abuse of it) held by the members of Korean family businesses (chaebols).[22][23][24] Passenger rates on Korean Air domestic flights dropped 6.6% in December 2014, compared to the previous year.[25]



On January 12, 2015, a member of the National Assembly of South Korea released papers from Cho's indictment which showed for the first time that macadamia nuts were properly served in a bag, according to the airline's manual. Furthermore, Cho had been informed of this, and the specific reason she gave for the cabin crew chief's firing was that he had not informed her earlier.[26]

The trial began on January 19 in the Seoul Western District Court, the defendant denying all charges.[27] When Cho's father appeared in court, he asserted that the chief could work with no disadvantages. Despite a court summons, the chief has not appeared in court. The flight attendant who served the nuts appeared, and testified that Cho had pushed her and made her kneel. She also said that she had been offered a teaching position at a KAL-affiliated college.[28]

On February 12, 2015, Cho was given a one-year prison sentence for obstructing aviation safety. The Seoul Western District Court handed the sentence to Cho during a hearing,[29][30] saying she was guilty of changing the flight plan, an offense that carries the penalty of up to 10 years in prison.[31]

Civil suit

The flight attendant, Kim Do Hee, filed a civil lawsuit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York in March 2015 against both Cho and the airline, seeking compensation for an alleged verbal and physical attack by Cho. She was represented by two law firms and was seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Kim also alleged that she was pressured by the airline to lie to government investigators in a bid to cover up the incident as well as appear in public with Cho to help "rehabilitate Cho's public image".[6][32]

Television parody

A South Korean drama, airing on Mnet, included a filmed parody of the incident but, for unknown reasons, it was not broadcast. There were suspicions that pressure had been applied from the chaebol to stop the broadcast, but the producers denied this.[33]


  1. ^ "Embarrassed airline chief apologizes for his daughter's attack of 'nut rage' - that forced Korean jet back to jet back to gate at JFK". Daily Mail. December 2, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "Flight Attendant Kicked Off Korean Air Flight Alleges Cover-Up".  
  3. ^ "South Korea probes reports airline boss' daughter ordered attendant off plane". Yahoo News Canada.  
  4. ^ a b c d Nam, In-soo (December 8, 2014). "Korean Air Executive Ejects Crew Member After Poor Nut Service".  
  5. ^ a b c d Han, Yeonghye (December 8, 2014). "조현아 대한한공 부사장, '땅콩' 봉지째 받고 이륙 지연". Joongang Ilbo (in 한국어). Retrieved December 26, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c Lee, Youkyung. "Nut rage flight attendant sues Korean Air, former exec".  
  7. ^ Nut rage': Prosecutors seek arrest for Korean Air executive"'". BBC News. 
  8. ^ a b "Korean Air executive apologizes for macadamia nut controversy". Fortune. December 12, 2014. Retrieved December 26, 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c "조현아 대한항공 부사장 ‘땅콩리턴‘ 논란, 출발에서 현재까지" [Heather Cho Vice president of Korean Air 'nuts rage controversy' from start to end]. KyungHyang (in 한국어). December 10, 2014. Retrieved December 19, 2014. 
  10. ^ ""땅콩회항' 일등석 승객 "조현아,고성·파일 던져'". NAVER (in 한국어). December 13, 2014. Retrieved January 19, 2015. 
  11. ^ "Daily News from Korea – Transport Ministry Must Submit to Independent Probe". The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition). 
  12. ^ 땅콩 회항' 조현아 부사장은 누구? 남편은 성형외과 의사 지난해 원정출산"'". Busan Times (in Korean). December 9, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Court issues arrest warrant against Korean Air heiress in 'nut rage' case".  
  14. ^ "Korean Air to be sanctioned for 'Nut Rage' Nepotism Fiasco". Flight Club. Paul Thompson. Retrieved December 18, 2014. 
  15. ^ "Korean Air chairman’s daughter denies conspiring in nut-rage coverup". The Guardian. Reuters of Seoul. Retrieved January 19, 2015. 
  16. ^ "Arrest warrant sought for Korean Air heiress Heather Cho over outburst of macadamia nut service". ABC News (Australia). 
  17. ^ "South Korea investigate Korean Air over Heather Cho outburst of nut service; company faces $2m fine". ABC News (Australia). 
  18. ^ "Korean Air chief's daughter resigns after causing social uproar". Global Post. December 9, 2014. 
  19. ^ "Korean Air 'nut rage' executive Heather Cho resigns". BBC. December 9, 2014. 
  20. ^ a b Hae-sik, Park (December 12, 2014). " [Heather Cho "I'll apology to Chief and flight attendant directly"]""조현아 전 부사장 "사무장·승무원 직접만나 진심으로 사과하겠다. Dong-a Ilbo (in 한국어). Retrieved December 26, 2014. 
  21. ^ "BBC News – 'Nut rage': Former Korean Air executive visits air stewards". BBC News. Retrieved January 19, 2015. 
  22. ^ "Why ‘nut rage’ is such a big deal in South Korea". Washington Post. December 12, 2014. 
  23. ^ "Korea's Nut Rage scandal ends with victory for the little people – Fortune". Fortune. 
  24. ^ Nut rage' exposes the many cracks in South Korea's elite"'". The Independent. 
  25. ^ "大韓航空の国内線利用者6.6%減、"ナッツリターン"が影響か". 中央日報 (in 日本語). January 18, 2015. Retrieved January 19, 2015. 
  26. ^ "責任者に「全部おまえのせい」=大韓航空前副社長が「逆ギレ」―ナッツ事件・韓国". Yahoo Japan (in 日本語). Jiji Press. January 16, 2015. Retrieved January 16, 2015. 
  27. ^ " [Heather Cho first trial... She got warned for resting her chin on her hand... Judge in a bad temper]'"조현아 첫 공판, 재판정서 '턱 괴고' 있다가 2차례 지적받아…'재판관 심기 불편. Asia Economy (in 한국어). January 21, 2015. Retrieved January 29, 2015. 
  28. ^ Park Ha-na (January 30, 2015). "Korean Air chairman Cho testifies in ‘nut rage’ trial". Korea Herald. Retrieved January 31, 2015. 
  29. ^ "Korean Air executive jailed in 'nut rage' case". BBC News. February 12, 2015. Retrieved February 18, 2015. 
  30. ^ Park, Madison; Hancocks, Paula (February 12, 2015). "Korean Air executive jailed over 'nut rage' incident". CNN. Retrieved October 2, 2015. 
  31. ^ Press, Associated; Mailonline, Kate Pickles For (February 12, 2015). Nut rage' Korean Air heiress handed one-year prison sentence"'". Mail Online. Retrieved October 2, 2015. The daughter of Korean Air's chairman has been in custody since December 30 and was charged with forcing a flight to change its normal route and which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. 
  32. ^ Nut rage' flight attendant sues Korean Air Lines and exec Cho Hyun-ah"'". March 11, 2015. Retrieved March 11, 2015. 
  33. ^ "ナッツ・リターン事件のパロディ、放送されず…ドラマ「七転び八起き、ク・ヘラ」側"圧力なかった"と反論". Kstyle. February 10, 2015. Retrieved February 11, 2015. 

Further reading

  • Kim, Jong-cheol; Kim, Ji-hye (December 9, 2014). 조현아 부사장, 원래 횡포로 유명" 밤 늦은 사과문, 오히려 '후폭풍' 됐다""". Ohmynews (in 한국어). Retrieved December 26, 2014. 
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