[News in focus] Asiana owner accused of abusing power

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[News in focus] Asiana owner accused of abusing power


Asiana Airlines’ employees, many wearing masks to hide their identity, protest against Kumho Asiana Group Chairman Park Sam-koo in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Sunday. [YONHAP]

Asiana Airlines’ recent no-meal fiasco did more than leave thousands of passengers hungry - it also shone a spotlight on accusations of power abuse and mismanagement at the top of Kumho Asiana Group, particularly surrounding Chairman Park Sam-koo.

Asiana Airlines employees and minor shareholders are protesting against Park’s poor management of the company even as in-flight meals have started to normalize.

The public and employees are especially mad about Park’s treatment of employees, accusations that sound remarkably similar to those leveled against Korean Air’s Cho family earlier this year.

But while the Korean Air family made it a habit to shout at and berate employees, Park’s alleged power abuse apparently involved far more elaborate planning.

On a local radio program on Monday, an Asiana flight attendant who requested anonymity claimed that flight attendants had to prepare singing and dancing performances for Park when he visited their training center once a month. The attendant said each employee was given roles when greeting Park. For instance, one was told to hold Park’s arm as he entered the room, while others were told to say things like “We love you, Mr. Chairman.”

The interview came after a video of newly trained flight attendants singing and dancing while holding heart-shaped paper for Park went viral through local media outlet KBS last week.

According to the interviewee, new flight attendants were trained by their seniors on how to behave around Park, and the working environment at Asiana made it difficult for employees to refuse those orders.

Angry Asiana employees created KakaoTalk chat rooms to share stories of the abuse of power, a technique that was adopted by Korean Air staff earlier this year. Nearly 3,000 employees have gathered in these chat rooms as of Tuesday and they are preparing for a rally against Park.

Rallies have already been held on Friday and Sunday in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul - an area that is increasingly becoming a hot spot for airline industry protests. Korean Air employees also attended the rallies in a show of solidarity.

Asiana is also facing trouble after the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport found that a U.S. national, Brad Park, had served as an executive of the company for six years between 2004 and 2010.

Considering that Korean Air’s budget airline Jin Air is on the brink of losing its business license because American citizen Cho Hyun-min, the youngest daughter of Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho, was an executive, Asiana could be in serious trouble.

Under Korean aviation safety law, foreign nationals cannot be registered as executives at Korean airlines and a violation could cost the airline its operating license.

The Transport Ministry, however, said in a press release Monday that Asiana’s case is different because, before July 2012, the law allowed for some discretion from governing authorities in punishing airlines for having foreign nationals as executives. Cho worked at Jin Air between 2010 and 2016.

Still, aviation industry insiders have pointed out that from 2004 to 2008 the violation of the law resulted in the immediate loss of the airline’s business license, so there is no reason for Asiana to be treated differently.

In the meantime, minor shareholders are preparing a lawsuit against Park for breach of duty with local law firm Hannuri Law. The law firm said Asiana’s management breached duty by causing losses to the company with the no-meal crisis.

The law firm said Park’s intention in ending a contract with LSG Sky Chefs, Asiana’s catering partner for 15 years, and shifting to Gate Gourmet Korea, a joint venture with Chinese HNA Group, was to secure 160 billion won ($143 million) to pay off debt at the group’s holding company, not to serve the interests of the airline.

Park said that the deal with Gate Gourmet was purely because the company offered “better contract terms and future business opportunities,” in a press briefing held Wednesday, but his protestations did little to appease shareholders.

When Asiana ended its contract with LSG, there were rumors Asiana did so because the German company refused to invest 160 billion won in Kumho Holdings. Coincidentally, HNA purchased 160 billion won in bonds with warrants issued by Kumho Holdings in March last year after Asiana chose Gate Gourmet.

If the Gate Gourmet venture had been successful, Park likely wouldn’t have faced many questions about the 160 billion won. However, a fire broke out at the joint venture’s factory in March and Asiana was forced to turn to Sharp DO & CO, a much smaller caterer that is unable to produce enough meals for Asiana. The decision not only caused business damages but also led to the apparent suicide of the CEO of one of Sharp DO & CO’s suppliers.

“The cause of how everything happened should be uncovered and wrongdoings must be fixed,” said a woman claiming to be the niece of the deceased CEO during the Asiana employee’s rally against Park on Sunday.

The no-meal fiasco is still not fully resolved, according to an Asiana spokesperson Tuesday. While there are no delays or planes leaving without food, some routes are still only able to offer simpler meal options.

BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]
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