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Opinions of Saturday, 27 December 2014

Columnist: Amuna, Paul

Reflections on Power, Privilege and Freedom of Speech: Part Two

Dr Paul Amuna
27th December 2014

In the first part of this series of articles (ghanaweb Opinions 27th December 2014), I chose as a scenario example the case of a US congressman’s “Communications Director” who used Facebook to attack the ‘Obama Girls’ and the US First Family, a posting for which she was ‘brutally lambasted’, was forced to apologise and consequently lost her job. In this article, I wish to turn my attention to other happenings from which we might learn some lessons and I focus on South Korea via New York.

In Korea, ‘big business’ tends to be family run conglomerates, some with rich and colourful histories. These businesses are collectively called “Chaebols” and contribute about 50 per cent of South Korea’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But of late they have come under scrutiny by the vast majority of ordinary Koreans who feel that they are too powerful, even corrupt and extremely arrogant and ‘snotty, stiff upper lip type’ looking down their noses at ordinary people and their employees who after all do all the hard work and make the money for these companies.

Recently it appears, an executive of one such company finally ‘run out of luck’ when she completely misjudged and miscalculated the extent of her power, privilege and influence by single-handedly bringing the ‘good name’ of Korean Air into disrepute through her arrogance and foolishness. Her name is Heather Cho Hyun-ah, from the Hyun-ah business ‘dynasty’ who own among other businesses, Korean Air, of which her father is the Board Chairman and she was until recently, Vice President in charge of Customer Services. What happened with Ms Cho?

It was a very simple matter and relates to nuts, yes nuts called “Maracadia Nuts” for which Heather Cho, erstwhile Korean Air Vice President in charge of Customer Services went ‘nuts’. For the life of me, I still wonder which side of her bed she woke up from on that fateful day in November, and exactly what she was thinking when she boarded the New York JFK to Incheon, South Korea scheduled flight!! Here is what happened:

Apparently Ms Cho was travelling as a private passenger, not in her capacity as Korean Air VP for Customer Services on this occasion. As often happens before Take Off, the usual “Maracadia Nuts’ were being served to passengers and for some obscure reason, Ms Cho took exception to being served these nuts “in a bag” rather than “on a plate”. Naturally if the nuts are “in a bag”, the passenger has to tear open the bag themselves to gain access to the nuts – big deal!!! Is that not what we mortals do all the time when we are served these ‘small chops’ on flights? Not for Heather Cho, who felt and insisted that she be served her nuts ON A PLATE – i.e. it is the airline steward’s responsibility to serve her, she’s too big and too important to ‘tear bags open’ to access her nuts. Hmmmmmm.

Apparently this irate airline executive was so upset, she ‘flew into a rage; and wouldn’t even accept a sincere apology from the airline steward and the chief steward, so much so, she demanded the removal of the ‘poor steward’ from the flight and their immediate and summary dismissal!!! Wow, it appears ‘this is where POWER LIES, never mind its abuse. After all her family (and Ms Cho for that matter) OWN Korean Air and so can ‘hire and fire’ at will. To execute her action, she ‘commanded’ the chief steward to “kneel and beg her” and according to reports (and eye witness account), she then in her “air rage” “jabbed” or hit the chief steward with a “document folder”. Remember, this was all happening in FIRST CLASS and other passengers became mere spectators in this sad, outrageous, unnecessary, unwise and in fact stupid abuse of her power. Worse was to happen: Miss Cho ORDERED the Captain of the plane to be summoned before her and ordered him to return the taxying aircraft back to the hold to ‘offload’ the sacked (and weeping) steward before departure. This matter could easily have been resolved and she could have achieved the same end simply by reporting the matter to the chief steward, then taking action in her capacity as Customer Service VP upon disembarking/ Yet in her own logic, that was simply too long a process and a ‘waste of her time’. She needed to show ‘who is boss’ and ‘where power lies’!

Here are my questions: what was this airline executive thinking at the time? What had ‘possessed’ her short of “demons”? did she realise that her actions were the exact opposite of what a “customer service” executive should be doing to their clients? Did she realise that her arrogance and stubbornness alone was enough for Korean Air to lose serious corporate clients? Did she think she was above everyone and ultimately the law, including aviation and international transportation laws? Did she realise that whatever her ‘powers and privileges’ in Korea, she was a ‘minnow’ as far as the rest of the world is concerned and that she was only displaying crass stupidity and starting a ‘class war’?

Needless to say, after offloading the air steward and successfully delaying take off from New York’s JFK, the pilot made up for lost time, landing his aircraft in Incheon only 11 minutes behind schedule!! But this is where the real drama begins: To cut a long story short, here are the developments since that fateful day:

Naturally there was outrage in Korea about what clearly was irresponsible behaviour and over-reaching of her powers as an airline executive;
• The fall out has led to massive calls for reforms and a complete overhaul of the powers of the “Chaebols” and big business who in the mind of the public have taken them for a ride for far too long;
• As the matter was being investigated, apparently airline staff were coerced into changing their stories to let her off the hook – a failed attempt;
• Ms Cho was forced to make several public apologies (shame) about her ‘uncouth and uncultured’ behaviour and to beg forgiveness from the public and the airline staff (including a failed attempt to visit two of them at home);
• Mr. Hyun-ah, Chairman of Korean Air (and father of Ms Cho) also made several public apologies and promised corrective actions;
• Miss Cho resigned not only from Korean Air, but her roles in all other aspects of the Hyun-ah business conglomerate with immediate effect.
• Korean Air’s own investigations are still on-going but the Ministry of Transport has embarked upon its own investigations into the matter and have promised punitive damages to Korean Air
• Ms. Cho has been cited for “criminal offences” including her air rage, “violence” towards airline staff and endangering airline security and delaying an international flight without due cause;
• Ministry of Transport officials who “leaked investigations details” to Korean Air have been interdicted (presumably for providing insider information to airline executives).
• Incidentally an unintended outcome of this saga is that the Maracadia nuts have become so popular as a result of this air rage, the manufacturers are now struggling to meet consumer demands for he nuts, thanks to Heather Cho!!! Amazing, yet very true indeed.

The list of the fall out and ramifications are simply unending. But what are the lessons here?

1. No matter who you think you are and no matter how powerful you think you are, you must always know the limits of your power and be guided by common sense and respect for your fellow humans
2. You can get away with it sometimes, but ultimately your actions (and inactions) will land you in troubled waters and you will be forced to ‘eat humble pie’ and look so much below ordinary, your standing in life will lose its meaning and bite
3. No matter how serious an initial mistake, please don’t lie about it and don’t get others involved in your circle of lies. It only makes things worse and can bring down a whole corporation
4. All of us from all walks of life, professions and positions of influence should learn the lesson that even if you are ‘born with a silver spoon in your mouth’ and ‘fed from a gold plate from birth’, NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT
5. Finally, always remember: respect is EARNED and never DEMANDED for it has never been, and never will be a fundamental right but rather an earned and humbling privilege; nor is it the preserve of the rich and famous in society.

In Part Three I hope to bring these reflections closer home and review goings-on in Ojakrom – tweaa!!! Are you my co-equal?