SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s transport ministry said Korean Air Lines Co. will face sanctions for pressuring employees to lie during a government probe into the nut rage fiasco that highlighted the tyrannical behavior of a top Korean business family.
The ministry said Tuesday it will also evaluate if the airline’s corporate culture poses safety risks after its chairman’s daughter Cho Hyun-ah overruled the captain of a flight to force the plane back to the gate in the incident early this month.
Cho, who was head of cabin service at Korean Air, ordered a senior flight attendant off a Dec. 5 flight after she was served macadamia nuts in a bag, instead of on a plate, in what she thought was a breach of service protocol in first class.
Transport ministry director Lee Gwang-hee said Korean Air could face 21 days of flight suspensions or a US$1.3 million fine for violating aviation law. The punishment will be determined by a separate committee that could decide to increase or lessen it.
Cho family members have a direct 10 percent stake in Korean Air, which is part of the family’s Hanjin conglomerate.
Park Chang-jin, the crew member who had to disembark from the plane, told South Korea’s KBS television network on Friday that Cho had shamed and insulted crew members. A first-class passenger told Yonhap News Agency that Cho yelled at flight attendants who kneeled before her, pushed one flight attendant’s shoulder and threw an object at the cabin wall.
The incident, now dubbed “nut rage,” hogged headlines around the world and enraged the South Korean public, leading to Cho’s removal from all executive roles at the airline.
The 40-year-old and her father apologized last week, but a new furor has erupted over Korean Air’s attempt to foil government investigators and local media reports that exposed how Korean Air employees were treated like servants of the Cho family.
“If the incident itself were not beastly enough, Korean Air’s response has been abominable,” Korea Herald said in an editorial. “In attempts that are akin to feudal servants trying to protect their lord’s daughter, Korean Air staff rallied to the rescue of Korean Air CEO Cho Yang-ho’s daughter.”
Park, the crew member, was visited by Korean Air Lines officials who pressured him to give a sanitized version of events to investigators.
The airline will be punished because Cho and Park lied during the probe and because the captain was negligent in his duties, according to the ministry.
However, the captain won’t face any sanction as he was powerless to refuse a member of the family that controls the airline, said Lee, the transport official.
The ministry’s statement indicated other airline employees also faced pressure to lie to the investigators. It did not identify them.
Its investigation found Cho used abusive language to flight attendants but could not ascertain if she used violence. It will file a complaint against Cho with prosecutors later in the day.
Prosecutors earlier launched a separate investigation into the Korean Air case after receiving a complaint from a civic group. Prosecutors summoned Cho to be questioned on Wednesday, according to Yonhap.
The incident also highlighted the risks of investing in family-controlled companies where the primary goal is to further the interests of the family, not that of the shareholders or employees. Shares of Korean Air closed 0.3 percent lower after dropping nearly 6 percent in Seoul after the government announced its plan to sanction the airline.