Confusion at New York airport as Korean Air 'nut-gate' broke

South Korea's Korean Air plane sits on the tarmac at Gimpo airport in Seoul on Dec 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
South Korea's Korean Air plane sits on the tarmac at Gimpo airport in Seoul on Dec 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (Reuters) - "You mean you need to replace a crew member?"

The Korean Air Lines official was speaking to staff aboard flight 086, which had just left the gate at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, bound for South Korea.

"Oh, so he's been told to get off?" the official asked in Korean, according to recordings on an air traffic broadcast website.

Minutes later, the plane returned to its gate and the cabin crew chief walked off the Airbus A380 jumbo jet, expelled after a senior Korean Air executive travelling in first class took issue with another flight attendant for serving her macadamia nuts in a bag, not a dish.

Heather Cho, 40, the daughter of the airline's chairman and until this week vice president in charge of the carrier's in-flight service, has since apologised.

The incident, which is being investigated by South Korean transportation authorities, provoked anger and mockery and led to her resignation.

According to recordings on LiveATC.net, a US-based website that archives and shares live air traffic control broadcasts, the incident also triggered bemusement among airport staff.

"Please confirm, do you need to return to the gate sir?" one female operator at JFK repeatedly asked the Korean Air crew, evidently failing earlier to get an answer to the same question.

For nearly 20 minutes the flight crew and officials on the ground discussed whether to replace the ousted cabin crew chief, according to the recordings.

Other radio operators asked if a spare jumpseat - a folding seat used by cabin crew - was available on other flights that night.

"OK. The cabin crew chief can leave the plane and the deputy can take over his role, we don't need another crew member... We're told we can go without a cabin crew chief when the crew chief gets off."

The flight arrived at Incheon, near Seoul, 11 minutes late.

On Friday, Heather Cho publicly apologised for the incident and said she would personally apologise to the crew member.