A former Korean Air Lines executive has been arrested for allegedly endangering flight safety by delaying a plane because her macadamia nuts were not served the way she wanted.
Cho Hyun-ah, the daughter of the airline’s chairman, has faced mounting public anger because she forced the December 5 flight to return to its gate in New York to remove a senior flight attendant.
She was angry the nuts were served in a bag, not on a plate, in an incident that has been dubbed “nut rage”.
Prosecutors have yet to press criminal charges against Cho, but South Korean law allows authorities to arrest a suspect for up to six months over worries the person could flee or destroy evidence. Seoul Western District Court said such concerns were warranted.
Cho was arrested and put in a Seoul detention facility shortly after the court approved her arrest warrant, according to officials at the Seoul Western Prosecutors’ Office.
A current Korean Air executive, surnamed Yeo, was also arrested for allegedly pressuring Korean Air employees to conceal the incident, the officials said.
The court said there were “systematic attempts to cover up” Cho’s actions “since the beginning of the incident”.
The prosecutors’ office has said Cho would face several charges, including inflight violence and changing a flight route, which is prohibited under aviation law.
Cho, 40, resigned earlier this month as vice president at Korean Air and from all her roles at the airline’s affiliates.
A passenger on the flight told local media that Cho assaulted and threatened crew members.
Park Chang-jin, the senior flight attendant who was kicked off, told the KBS television network that he was insulted and had to kneel before her because he did not dare to challenge the chairman’s daughter.
He said Cho also poked the back of his hand with a corner of the flight manual book several times.
Her behaviour touched a nerve with South Koreans who are frustrated with family members who control mighty business groups known as chaebol that dominate Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Cho and her two siblings quickly became executives at the airline and its affiliates. The family’s direct stake in Korean Air is just 10% but cross-shareholdings among Hanjin companies give it effective control.
South Korea’s transport ministry has also faced criticism because its investigators probing the incident were said to be too cosy with company executives who tried to protect Cho.
Most of the ministry’s investigators formerly worked at the airline, South Korea’s largest, raising questions about their fairness.
Earlier this week, the ministry said it decided to punish four of its officials for misconduct during the investigation.
One official was arrested last week for leaking information about the probe to Yeo, the Korean Air executive, in several telephone conversations and text messages.