Ex-Korean Air executive on trial in ‘nut rage’ case

Cho Hyun-ah achieved notoriety by ordering flight attendant off flight over nut serving

Cho Hyun-ah (centre) could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of all four charges against her. File photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The former Korean Air executive famous for an inflight tantrum over macadamia nuts has pleaded not guilty to violating aviation safety law and hindering a government investigation.

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

Ms Cho spent most of the first day of her trial with her head lowered and hair covering her face. She declined to make any comments when invited to by a judge. Ms Cho's lawyer Yu Seung-nam said her client is unable to mentally recover from her ordeal as she has been "beaten" by the media.

Ms Cho, who is the daughter of Korean Air’s chairman, achieved worldwide notoriety by kicking the chief flight attendant off the December 5th flight after being offered macadamia nuts in a bag, instead of on a dish, by another crew member. At the time, Ms Cho was vice president of cabin service at the airline.


Her behaviour, dubbed "nut rage", caused an uproar in South Korea. The incident touched a nerve in a country where the economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol that often act above the law.

Ms Cho has been in police custody since December 30th and could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of all four charges against her.

Prosecutors accused her of forcing a flight to change its route, which was the most serious charge with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. The three other charges Ms Cho faces are the use of violence against flight crew, hindering a government probe and forcing the flight’s purser off the plane.

Ms Cho's lawyer told the court that the flight had moved only 17 yards from the gate at New York's John F Kennedy airport before it returned, which did not amount to a forced change of an aviation route.

Cho admitted using violence against one flight attendant in first class by pushing her shoulder and throwing an object at her, but denied that she poked the hands of 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 Ms Cho’s tantrum was scared and nervous throughout the 14-hour journey.

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

Two other defendants in the nut rage case also pleaded not guilty. Korean Air executive Yeo Woon-jin was charged with interfering with the government investigation and a transport ministry official was charged with leaking secrets about the investigation.

Mr Yeo, who has worked for Korean Air for more than 30 years, insisted that he did not know that Ms Cho's actions could result in a criminal investigation even after prosecutors showed evidence that flight attendants reported full details of the incident to him.

“Our company’s executives always make sure during their business trips that cabin service is properly done. I certainly thought (Cho) gave directions as a vice president overseeing cabin service,” he said.

Prosecutors also highlighted an email showing the Yeo had asked a Korean Air customer service executive to help prevent legal action against Ms Cho by giving special treatment to the first class passenger who sat near her.