Korean Air’s macadamia nut scandal—in which the daughter of the airline’s chairman dressed down staff for improper nut-serving protocol, and ordered a steward to exit a New York-to-Seoul flight—is raising new questions about South Korea’s family-dominated corporate culture.
At the center of the macadamia affair is Heather Cho, a vice president at the airline whose duties include overseeing inflight service. After a flight attendant served her unrequested macadamia nuts in a paper bag—first-class passengers are supposed to be asked if they would like nuts first, and the nuts themselves are supposed to be served on a plate—Cho told the captain to return to the gate and ordered the head of the service crew off the plane when he couldn’t quickly answer questions about the airline’s policies.
Macadamia-gate only cost Cho’s fellow passengers about 11 minutes, according to Korean Air, which lambasted the flight steward for “making up lies and excuses.” But it cost Cho her job: she resigned her position today at the airline, according to Reuters, citing an anonymous company official.
Her haughty behavior reveals an ugly side of the culture within chaebols, South Korean’s giant family-run conglomerates. Family members at the firms are often even more powerful than senior company executives, and the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial that Cho’s actions exemplify the “sense of privilege” that chaebol families lord over other workers. A recent survey by the Segye Times and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that 92 percent of young South Koreans think their society is unfair, and that “deep-rooted nepotism will ruin society.”