Cho Hyun-Ah, the daughter of Korean Air's chief executive, arrives for questioning in Seoul in late 2014. Prosecutors summoned the heiress and former executive to testify about her fit of 'nut rage' on a plane, which had sparked a national uproar. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Dear Mr Kang,

In November, in the process of accumulating what’s now reported to be a 13.47% share in Hanjin-KAL, your KCGI fund issued this statement: “We are not seeking any short-term profits. We aim to enhance the interests of our employees, shareholders and customers through long-term business development.”

I’m a customer – a passenger – and I’d like to do what I can to hold you to that, especially now that Chairman Cho Yang-ho has died unexpectedly and reports suggest you’re about to try to push through major changes.

The truth is, Korean Air is doing a lot of things right when it comes to taking care of even the least of its passengers – and at a time when too many airline managements clearly despise those passengers who, by choice or necessity, travel in the economy cabin.

No more ‘Killer Air’

To start with, when was the last time you heard Korean Air called “Killer Air”? That was its ghoulish nickname two decades ago, thanks to five crashes in five years and a toxic cockpit culture in which copilots were afraid to second-guess their ex-military martinet captains. Management put its act together then and the safety record improved.

Not only that, Korean Air has stood fast – so far – against the unconscionable industry trend of shrinking economy passengers’ seating to the point of inflicting serious pain. Back in the 1970s airlines kept a comfortable 34 to 36 inches of space between seating rows. By now, some companies have dropped that as low as an excruciating 29 inches.

All this came home to me recently when I needed to arrange a Bangkok trip from the US for two passengers – myself and a wife who suffers from curvature of the spine. The wife vowed that if she should board and find she’d drawn a seat as uncomfortable as the one she’d endured on her latest (United) flight from Hawaii to the continental US, she would exit the aircraft and refuse to fly.

Roomier seats

With that incentive, I looked up comparative statistics and found that Korean Air still offers 32 to 34 inches between economy rows on long-haul flights. Reviewers generally praised its economy seats.

I bought the tickets and crossed my fingers. On the feeder flight from New Orleans it seemed a bad omen when a smarty-pants Delta flight attendant slandered our destination city:

“Where are you two going?”

“Bangkok.”

Roll of eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

But once we were on a Korean Air plane, headed from Atlanta to Incheon via the North Pole, it was clear I’d made the right decision. My wife was smiling. Here’s her summary:

“Seats were much more comfortable than the flight I’d taken from Hawaii. Flight attendants were more active. They answered passengers’ summonses promptly. Alcohol was free (but limited). More meals were offered. Unlike the new United aircraft, the Korean Air planes still had movie screens and the passengers didn’t have to bring their own devices to watch movies.”

Gentler tone

She appreciated the overall softer, gentler tone of the Korean Air service. “The airline didn’t hassle sleeping passengers by startling them with announcements to buckle seatbelts because of turbulence.”

I know you’re wondering now: But what about the “nut rage” incident back in 2014? The late Chairman Cho’s daughter Hyun-ah, a Korean Air vice-president flying first class from New York, was so infuriated when her macadamia nuts were not served on a silver tray that she ordered the captain to taxi back to the terminal so the cabin attendant who had served her could be removed from the flight.

In January of this year, you, Mr Kang, alluded to that and other incidents when you criticized the Cho family, the controlling shareholders, for “tyrannical behavior” and “arrogant and bossy attitude.” No doubt, and rightly, you want some things to change. But please think hard for a moment about that nut rage incident.

Yes, the daughter behaved outrageously and abominably. No, employees shouldn’t have to endure such abuse. But please recall that this was a case in which bad management behavior was directed to maintaining high standards of passenger service.

Maintaining those high standards, Mr Kang, is the goal we customers want management to pursue – nicely, of course – regardless of who’s in charge next.

Yours sincerely,

Bradley K Martin

Bradley Martin is the author of Nuclear Blues, a novel set in North Korea.

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