A South Korean court Friday suspended the prison term of the former Korean Air executive whose onboard “nut rage” delayed a flight last year, setting the stage for her release from prison.
Heather Cho, also known as Cho Hyun-ah, who is the daughter of the airline's chairman, did not violate aviation security law when she ordered the chief flight attendant off a Dec. 5 flight, forcing it to return to the gate at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, according to the Seoul High Court's ruling.
The upper court sentenced Cho to 10 months in prison that will be suspended for two years. It said she was guilty of using violence against flight attendants.
Cho achieved worldwide notoriety after an onboard tantrum triggered when a first class flight attendant served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of on a dish. Cho, head of the airline's cabin service at the time, had a heated, physical confrontation with members of the crew.
Cho, who has been in prison since her December arrest, was likely to be freed from prison later Friday. A lower court previously sentenced her to one year in prison.
The incident was a lightning rod for anger in a country where the economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol that often act above the law.
Cho was previously convicted of forcing the flight to change its route, obstructing the flight's captain in the performance of his duties, forcing a crew member off a plane and assaulting a crew member. It found her not guilty of interfering with a transportation ministry investigation of the incident. Cho pleaded not guilty and prosecutors had called for three years in prison.
The aviation security law was enforced to regulate highly dangerous acts such as hijacking the plane. But the upper court said Friday that there wasn't a big safety threat posed by Cho's actions, and returning the plane that was taxiing did not constitute forcing a change in the plane's route.
Kim Sang-hwan, head of the three judge upper court panel, said that even though Cho committed the crime of using violence on crew members, she should be given a second chance. The judge also cited her “internal change” since she began serving her prison term as a reason for reducing the sentence.
The upper court also took into consideration that Cho is the mother of 2-year-old twins and had never committed any offense before. She has resigned from her position at the airline.
“It appears that she will have to live under a heavy criticism from the society and stigma,” said Kim.