SEOUL A South Korean court sentenced the daughter of Korean Air Lines' (003490.KS) chairman to one year in prison, after finding her guilty over an on-board incident in New York concerning the way she was served nuts in first class.
Heather Cho, the airline's former head of in-flight service, violated the law by ordering the plane to return to the gate after it started to taxi on Dec. 5, the court ruled on Thursday.
Cho had demanded the flight crew chief be expelled from the flight after she was served macadamia nuts in a bag, and not on a dish. The South Korea-bound plane, which had started to move away from the gate, had to return.
The so-called "nut rage" episode triggered scorn and outrage in a country whose economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol, and where many are fed up with the rich and powerful escaping punishment for bad behaviour.
"This is a case where human dignity was trampled upon," Judge Oh Sung-woo said.
The court said it took into account that Cho was the mother of 20-month-old twins and had already suffered, but added that her conduct had seriously harmed the victims. Cho, 40, has been in custody since Dec. 30.
"It's my understanding that she is repenting," said her lawyer, Suh Chang-hee, adding that he would discuss whether to appeal against the ruling. Korean Air declined to comment.
In a letter to the court read out by the judge, Cho said she was "truly sorry to those who were hurt".
Wearing green prison uniform, Cho hung her head, long hair obscuring her face, as the judge read the verdict. She cried when the judge read her apology letter.
Prosecutors had sought a three-year jail term if Cho was convicted of breaking aviation law and another charge of using her position to obstruct due process. The court found her not guilty on the second charge.
It sentenced another executive to eight months in prison for trying to interfere in the government investigation.
Choi Jin-nyoung, a spokesman of the Korean Bar Association, said he had expected Cho to be sentenced to 1-1/2 to 2 years in prison, as a year is the minimum for aviation law violations.
"These days, the court makes a decision based on sentencing guidelines, so chaebol people don't get suspended sentences like they did in the past," he said.
Cho, who resigned after the incident, is the oldest of the three children of Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho. Her siblings also work for the airline.
(Writing by Jack Kim and Tony Munroe; Additional reporting by Sohee Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)