Korean Air 'nut rage' scandal: 5 things to know about Heather Cho Hyun Ah

Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of chairman of Korean Air, Cho Yang Ho, bows in front of the media at the Seoul Western District Prosecutor's Office in Seoul on Dec 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of chairman of Korean Air, Cho Yang Ho, bows in front of the media at the Seoul Western District Prosecutor's Office in Seoul on Dec 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of chairman of Korean Air, Cho Yang Ho, arrives at the Seoul Western District Prosecutor's Office in Seoul, on Dec 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of chairman of Korean Air, Cho Yang Ho, arrives at the Seoul Western District Prosecutor's Office in Seoul, on Dec 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of Korean Air chairman, Cho Yang Ho, appears in front of the media outside the offices of the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, in Se
Cho Hyun Ah, also known as Heather Cho, daughter of Korean Air chairman, Cho Yang Ho, appears in front of the media outside the offices of the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, in Seoul on Dec 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The controversy over Korean Air's "nut rage" scandal has raged on, with South Korean prosecutors grilling the airline's former senior vice-president Heather Cho Hyun Ah on Wednesday for breaching aviation safety laws.

Ms Cho, 40, had sparked outrage in her country earlier this month when she ordered the chief crew member to get off a New York-Seoul flight after she was served a bag of macadamia nuts in a packet, instead of a dish. The taxiing plane had to return to the gate, causing a delay.

The Korean Air heiress has since resigned from her post and apologised in public.

Here are five things about the woman at the centre of "nut rage":

1. Heiress to business empire

She is the eldest of three children to Korean Air chairman Cho Yang Ho, 65, who also heads business conglomerate Hanjin Group.

Ms Cho joined the company in 1999 and was in charge of catering, in-flight sales business and cabin service in her role as vice-president. She was also the chief executive officer of KAL Hotel Network, Wangsan Leisure Development Co and Hanjin Travel Service Co, all affiliates of Hanjin Group. She remains on the board of directors for Korean Air.

She had reportedly been in a three-way race with her brother Won Tae (who heads business and sales strategies) and sister Hyun Min (who handles marketing and advertising) to succeed their father as chairman. All three own about a 2.5 per cent stake each in the company.

2. She wanted to be a harpist

Having given up dreams of becoming a professional harpist, she entered hotel management instead, graduating from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in New York.

She holds a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Southern California. Her father and siblings are also alumni of the university.

Ms Cho sits on the 19-man advisory board of Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School.

3. Shrewd but tough boss

She has been credited with forging a new corporate identity for Korean Air, which includes newly-designed uniforms, cabin interiors as well as improving in-flight services.

Travel retail magazine The Moodie Report stated that the airline is expected to generate inflight retail sales of around US$190 million (S$247.4 million) in 2014, placing it as the world's leading onboard duty free retailer. In a 2006 interview, it attributed this consistent success to Ms Cho's drive and passion. 

A key figure in the airline's hotel business, she presided over the successful opening of the Grand Hyatt Incheon's new wing in September, as well as the ongoing makeover of the Wilshire Grand in Los Angeles.

Yet, there have been industry rumours about how she is a difficult person to work with, along with allegations that airline employees are treated as "servants" to the Cho family. Park Chang Jin, the crew member forced to leave the plane, claimed he was insulted and made to kneel down in front of Ms Cho. "I dared not object to her, the owner's daughter," he told TV network KBS.  

4. No stranger to controversy

The family is no stranger to controversy and has been cited in the media as a prime example of how wealthy, family-run conglomerates - known as chaebol - in South Korea are rife with nepotism.

Ms Cho, who is married to a well-known plastic surgeon, was criticised last year for engineering a move to work in Hawaii two months before giving birth to twin boys. It meant that her sons would be granted US citizenship, thus avoiding the need to serve two years of mandatory military service in South Korea.

Her brother was the subject of a 2005 police investigation amid allegations he had hurt an elderly woman. In 2012, he publicly ridiculed civic group activists lobbying against the management of Inha University, which is owned by Hanjin Group.

Ms Cho's father was convicted of tax evasion in 2000, and in the wake of his daughter's actions, is facing questions over his leadership as head of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The airline is now facing further investigation after Park revealed that he was asked to provide false statements to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

5. Single-handedly caused the demand for macadamia nuts to soar

Previously a type of nut unfamiliar to South Koreans, interest in macadamias has risen and retailers in the country have reportedly profited from a sales boom.

South Korea's biggest online shopping retailer Gmarket, owned by eBay, experienced a 20-fold increase in sales within a week.

The Mauna Loa brand of macadamia nuts from Hawaii were sold out on e-commerce website Coupang as users clamoured for the product to be restocked in the comments section.

Sources: Korea Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Nanyang Business School website, Moodiereport.com, Daily Mail