In Defense of Korean Air’s “Nut Rage” Executive, And Why a US Airline Should Hire Her

We’ve all heard the story by now about Cho Hyun-ah, Korean Air’s Vice President for inflight services and daughter of the airline’s Chairman, who flew New York JFK – Seoul at the beginning of December and had an altercation with a crew member.

She was flying first class, and a flight attendant presented her with an unopened bag of macadamia nuts, rather than asking her if she wanted the nuts and then serving them on a plate per proper procedure.

Ms. Cho scolded the flight attendant, and dressed down the purser. She apparently hit the flight attendant, as this assault is the only charge she faces that she pled guilty to. She ordered the purser off the plane.

The aircraft, which was apparently 56 feet toward the runway at this point, returned to the gate to offload the purser. The incident delayed departure by 20 minutes.

And the world went ‘nuts’… more so in South Korea than in the U.S. where the story continues to have legs. Ms. Cho has been detained since since late December, and faces up to 15 years in prison.

I think most people agree that,

  • Actually assaulting a flight attendant over this is reprehensible.
  • Turning the plane back to the gate, and delaying all of the passengers onboard, was terrible judgment under the circumstances.

I don’t imagine I would want to work for Ms. Cho. I don’t believe she belongs in prison. She should probably reach a quiet settlement with the flight attendant over the assault charge and with the purser simply to keep further discussion of the incident out of the media.

This is embarrassing for Korean Air, and for her father the Chairman of the company who has now publicly declared that he has admonished his daughter.

It also strikes me that this is very Korean, and that the bad behavior doesn’t come close to replicating how badly Qatar’s flight attendants are treated (something, it seems, that they voluntarily sign up for, and there’s a long line for the jobs in full knowledge of this poor treatment).

Ms. Cho should be dismissed permanently from Korean Air — and should be hired by a major U.S. airline as Vice President of inflight.

US airlines are making historic investments in their inflight hard product. American alone is floating numbers like $2 billion (accounting for all of its previously-announced investments). But no matter how much they invest in seats, or inflight entertainment, or internet, they cannot deliver a product that’s on part with many of their international competitors.

United brought back ‘the Friendly Skies’ without friendly people, describing their features and benefits as ‘flyer friendly’.

Because the actual friendly part doesn’t really cost more. In fact, net net it tends to be airlines with lower labor costs that are actually friendlier. I explored this notion four years ago in Genuineness vs. Plasticism in Flight Attendant Interactions with Customers.

Flight attendants can be there primarily for your safety or can provide an experience of true hospitality. In the U.S., those outstanding crews are generally great by virtue of their own choice and drive rather than company culture. Fixing that is the part that not only doesn’t cost money, it can be less expensive, but it’s hard to get there once you’ve lost it.

While I think the extreme approach to inflight standards was inappropriate on the Korean Air flight I also think that an extreme commitment to inflight could benefit a US carrier. Delta, United, and American do not suffer from too lax an approach.

Tell me, am I off base?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I completely agree. Hire her immediately.

    It’s nice to know that there are people with standards and service standards here in the USA need to be kicked up a notch.

  2. Off base? More like delusional.

    I would NEVER hire someone guilty of previously striking an employee for moral and practical reasons. If it ever happened again, I would basically be guilty of endangering one of my employees. Not to mention, the mere act of hiring him/her would probably cause undue stress and create a hostile work environment.

    Advocating for someone like this is shameful

  3. Way off base! This woman’s reputation goes far and wide. With all the US carriers’ labor issues, no member of management would touch her with a ten foot pole. Send her to jail!

  4. Gary, I’m impressed at how creative you’re getting with the clickbaiting. You’ve taken a page out of what us in the media world call pulling “The Gawker”, or nerd-baiting. It’s a tried and true practice of getting traffic.

    “People love to hate, and therefore writing a post trashing something people love, or stating an opinion that can so obviously be demolished is clearly bating for traffic. This is a practice I’ve seen across many of the Gawker sites before (Gizmodo being one of them), but this is a whole new level.”

    Don’t fall for it people.

  5. I’ll add the last paragraph of that article which is particularly relevant for this post. I think it would be enlightening to your readers:

    “So as a freelancer, and as a publisher, you have to ask yourself how much you want to sell your soul in order to bring in page views. I’m sure that was Gizmodo’s highest trafficked day in a long while, but at the cost of most people visiting saying “Wow, how could they have actually published this?” Alyssa might be getting a fat bonus check at the end of the month, but at the cost of having her name permanently etched into the internet as a shallow, mean human being. Was it worth it? I’ll let them decide. All we can do in the future to fight such practices is to ignore them, but from what I’ve seen, we nerds just can’t let things like this slide, and so our anger will continue to be used as currency.”

    Don’t ‘sell your soul’ Gary. It just hurts your credibility.

  6. No she shouldn’t be hired, but your point remains. I had two contrasting first class experiences on USAirways this week, with one being, shall we say, “minimal service.” So on the second flight, when the FC FA actually offered to take my coat and hang it, I was somewhat surprised. I should be surprised when they DON’T not when they do.

    A great FA in any cabin makes the unromantic flying experience so much better. But “great” should not just be doing what is expected at the level of service, but more.

  7. Well, I think ATLA would be delighted to have her hired by any US airline.

    Nor would I mind it myself, but she really has to learn that touching is not acceptable.

  8. I think it’s obvious Gary isn’t actually suggesting that a US airline hire this woman.

    He’s making the totally reasonable point that the pendulum should swing a whole lot more in the direction of attention to service standards on US airlines than it does today, and airlines should take some serious and even extreme measures to get there.

  9. Gary, what have you been drinking, and can you send me some? 😀

    In all seriousness, yes, you are WAY off base. No US airline (or any other US company) should hire this pathetic, arrogant, tyrannical woman. She is simply a horrible, horrible human being, and if AA/DL/UA even considered hiring her, they would (rightfully) face an uproar from their workers (I loathe unions, but they’d be 100% right about this).

  10. Boy Gary trolled some of you guys really nicely. 🙂

    He should have titled this “A Modest Proposal…”

  11. I actually think US airlines should hire her. Reinforcing a standard is critical to maintaining a high level of service, and the immediate firing and deplaning of staff who don’t follow the known standard sends a clear message to all other flight staff that deviation from this standard will not be tolerated, particularly for the high value clients in first class. Just like Van Halen’s infamous “No brown M&Ms” clause, violating the airline’s service standards to the VICE PRESIDENT OF IN-FLIGHT SERVICE for your airline is a RED FLAG for more extensive quality and safety problems (see Mr Roth’s excellent justification for the policy- She might be an a**hole, but a**holes guarantee the quality of the product.

  12. You are way off base. Are you saying that it is alright to physically abuse an employee as long as you are able to afford to pay them off to avoid jail time? What if you cannot afford to pay off the person that you assaulted? Do you deserve jail time any more or less?

    A qualified manager would have used the lapse in service as an opportunity to provide guidance.

    Ms. Cho likely lead through fear (as the daughter of the Chairman and CEO) than through thorough knowledge of experience, policy, and procedures. I doubt she would make it in the US corporate structure without her father’s backing.

  13. Totally agree. The US flight attendants are way too spoiled. Most of them don’t know what service means. If I give Korean airline 10 pts for their service, Singapore 9.5, Air China 9, then all major US airlines fall below 1.

  14. To understand this incident, and why it’s still big news in Korea, you have to keep in mind that the uproar has absolutely nothing to do with in-flight standards. This is about the “princeling” syndrome. When leaders of the chaebol were building a wealthy, industrial country out of the ashes of war they were practically worshipped as gods. Their children have done nothing but live off the wealth of their parents and act as if the rules and laws of the country do not apply to them. As such, they are universally hated.

    Presumably on Ms Cho’s behalf, an executive of KAL worked to cover up any charges — four investigators have been punished for improperly leaking details of the investigation. Ms. Cho’s younger sister (VP of marketing at KAL) sent a text message swearing revenge for her older sister’s horrible treatment at the hands of investigators, after previously telling her staff that the scandal was everyone’s fault except her sister’s. Ms Cho the elder tried to buy off one of the flight attendants she hit by offering her a job at a KAL-affiliated college if she would change her testimony.

    So, if you think a US airline would benefit from a nepotistic executive who assaults her staff and then acts to pervert the course of justice when investigators come knocking, then by all means, hire Cho Hyun-A.

  15. You are correct that KE has in-flight service even in economy (if you’ve ever been there) that far surpasses the service on American carriers. The difference though is more attributable to the cultural differences between Asia and America than to Ms. Cho’s efforts. In fact given the bad judgment she displayed on that infamous flight, I suspect that her underpaid subordinates are actually responsible for KEs in-flight service quality.

  16. Gary Leff,

    Imagine yourself sitting in First Class on this Korean flight. You witness this Ms. Cho hitting a flight attendant. Have some empathy here. If I witnessed this act, I would have been horrified. Needless to say, Korean Air Lines has probably suffered some loss of passengers over this act. Now, why would anyone in their right mind hire Ms. Cho?

  17. The haters in the comments are just that: haters! This post is brilliant. The market clearly shows that Qatar has the answers about how to treat flight attendants. They keep signing up for it! The market has spoken. Who are you to impose your lame morality on the one true god? Maybe if the FA unions got a little of the Cho treatment they would stop interfering with the attendants’ right to participate freely in the kind of market offered by great airlines like Qatar.

  18. The problem was that attendant’s serving was appropriate. She was drunken and she misunderstood “changed” procedure for serving the nuts.

  19. “Because the actual friendly part doesn’t really cost more” – that’s BS and you know it. It’s not the cost, it’s the management relationship. I know you won’t even deign to fly southwest (THE HORROR) but those planes are the friendliest. Same with SkyWest – I have never met a mean SkyWest FA. Ever. I am positive both of those groups make less than your walks-on-water AA. Or your much-maligned UAL (correctly in this case, of course).

    Anyway, that’s what is so great – it’s not even the cost, it’s the a-hole management and not-much-better union leadership.

  20. Cultural differences aside, I fly mostly business class whenever possible, when going abroad. I don’t care to peek behind the curtains to determine how the customer services are being directed or executed…..I simply wish to have the best possible customer experience at my seat. I find most foreign carriers get the job done much better than US carriers.

  21. You are right on target! Asian carriers treat their passengers like guests In their home (not the “nut lady of course). They enjoy providing excellent service. Not so their US counterparts.

  22. Honestly, your true character or lack of it shines through more and more. Garbage food posts, the inappropriate post about the poor child who died in a car, this…they keep coming. Is there a way to delete your blog from boarding area?

  23. If she can figure out how to whip the CO crews into shape so they come out from hiding behind the galley curtain without you having to press the CO button (call button) first, I say bring her on and hire her.

  24. Gary you are 100% correct. While not condoning Cho Hyan-ah’s childish and seemingly entitled tantrum, I think we can all agree Asian carriers’ in flight service standards leave their US counterparts in the dust. A warm smile and genuinely caring attitude don’t require additional capital beyond stringent standards, better recruiting practices and consistent recognition and reward.

  25. Some folks ‘got it’ — I don’t ACTUALLY think a US airline should hire THIS person. Rather US airlines should swing the pendulum more heavily towards paying attention to service. That’s the only point of this post. Sometimes you have to distinguish between the exoteric and esoteric meanings of posts. 🙂

  26. I get the joke but admire the fact that someone has this passion to serve and correct in this day and age. When things have gone horrible wrong in a service economy, sometimes shock & awe to correct is a good thing…

  27. The airlines should hire experience consultants. The Korean exec is a chaebol, a second-generation heir to a conglomerate, and unlikely to have a comprehensive understanding of the entire experience (or, apparently, ability to react appropriately). There are actual experts out there who will come and analyze your end-to-end experience and produce trackable markers for how to improve that service. I should know, I am one of those experts (who found this blog after a particularly hideous American Airlines experience, may all of their planes be encased in carbonite and sunk to the bottom of the sea).

    Sadly, Big Data has convinced a whole lot of companies that they’ll be able to analyze all of their customer problems through segmentation of already-gathered customer data. Analytics work is good, but it’s only half of the puzzle – you need actual experience analysts to get in the trenches and do qualitative work before you truly understand what the data is saying.

    Nut Rage lady was right to note the deviation from standards, but that’s a problem that could have its root in a lot of different places (catering mistakes, galley organization, task prioritization, training error). Acting like a chaebol from a drama and berating staff? Completely ineffective in the long run.

  28. No I did not support United against Dr. Dao, that’s a lie. I felt that the aviation police weren’t getting enough of the blame. Get over it, @747always

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