Seoul - The daughter of Korean Air's chairman was jailed for one year Thursday over a now notorious "nut rage" incident that triggered an uproar over the behaviour of South Korea's elite business families.
The district court in Seoul convicted Cho Hyun-Ah of violating aviation safety law by forcing a taxiing New York-Seoul KAL flight to return to its departure gate on December 5.
Cho, who was the airline's executive vice president at the time, had insisted on expelling the chief purser from the plane after taking exception to being served macadamia nuts in a bag, rather than a bowl.
The 40-year-old had treated the flight "as if it was her own private plane", Justice Oh Sung-Woo said, adding that the case had become the object of international ridicule and "damaged the dignity" of the country.
"It is doubtful that the way the nuts were served was so wrong," Oh added.
Cho was also convicted of assault on the cabin crew.
The chief steward, Park Chang-Jin, had testified that Cho had made him kneel and beg for forgiveness while jabbing him with a service manual.
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Prosecutors in the trial had asked for a three-year sentence, but Oh said he had taken into account that no lives had been jeopardised in the incident, as well as the fact that Cho had two young children and that her personal and professional reputation had been shattered.
Dismissing defence arguments to the contrary, the court ruled that an aircraft should be deemed "in flight" from the moment it begins to move and that Cho was therefore guilty of illegally altering the course of a plane.- Spoilt and arrogant-
She was acquitted of obstruction of justice charges related to allegations that she had pressured KAL staff to lie about the incident.
Another defendant, also a KAL executive was convicted of forcing the flight crew to give false testimony and was jailed for eight months.
Although Cho had submitted letters to the court expressing repentance for her behaviour, Oh questioned whether she was truly remorseful.
Cho, who has been in custody since her arrest on December 30 and attended the court in a green prison outfit, stood silently throughout the ruling, her head bowed.
The case triggered a huge public backlash.
Cho was seen as emblematic of a generation of spoilt and arrogant offspring of owners of the giant family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols," that dominate the South Korean economy.
Like Cho, many are given senior positions in the family business, sometimes after a token period "learning the trade".
In the past, chaebol owners have appeared to be above the law. Those convicted of gross fraud have either received lenient sentences or been granted pardons after just a short time in jail.
Cho resigned from all her posts and publicly apologised for her behaviour, which her father and KAL chairman Cho Yang-Ho also criticised as a "foolish act".