Pilot Tries to Drink Wine Inflight, Korean Air Demotes Flight Attendant Who Stopped Him

An incident has come to light about a Korean Air captain who tried to drink predeparture champagne. And when stopped by cabin crew, came along later looking for wine.

This apparently happened December 30th (so a festive time I suppose) on a Seoul – Amsterdam flight. The crew chief who stood in the way of his drinking and reported the behavior to the airline wound up demoted, while the captain himself received only a verbal warning.

[T]he captain, while walking past a tray of welcoming drinks, tried to pick up a glass of champagne. As a cabin crew member blocked him, saying “you can’t drink alcohol,” the captain said, “Then you can give it (to me) in a paper cup” and then picked up a non-alcoholic drink.

Hours later, in the middle of the flight, the captain asked the cabin crew to bring “a cup of wine.” The crew member refused and reported the case to the cabin crew chief.

The captain learned that the crew chief blocked his drinking and started an argument over it.

Korean Air describes the move to discipline the employee who protected the aircraft as “fair” because – since the captain apparently didn’t drink “it didn’t cause real trouble” — while the flight attendant “used insulting words during the altercation” (should have been more respectful towards the captain who wanted to drink) and was responsible for “revealing the internal issue.” This last makes little sense since the flight attendant was disciplined before the story became public..

They say that flight attendants are there primarily for your safety. In this case that was true — the cabin crew chief stood firm to prevent the Korean Air captain from tossing back a few.

When pilots drink prior to flight it’s serious. When they drink inflight? Attempts to fly under the influence have happened at Alaska Airlines and at United. And at Air India. And at British Airways. We’ve even seen a pilot blow a .24 in the cockpit.

Sure, when an American pilot was arrested a reader asked whether that meant the airline was back to serving pre-departure beverages and I laughed. However even seeing alcohol in the cockpit is serious.

I don’t know whether the cabin crew chief’s inflight behavior on its own might have independently warranted a reprimand. However:

  • Dealing with a captain who wants to drink inflight, and makes multiple attempts to do so, is an unusual situation that the flight attendant should be commended for handling even imperfectly.

  • The investigation of the crew chief’s conduct only came about because of the report of the captain’s behavior.

  • Disciplining the person making the report only serves to discourage crew from making similar reports in the future. That’s dangerous. The safety of the aircraft should weigh more heavily here than the words or gestures an employee may have used in furthering the primary goal of safety.

I worry that the culture of Korean Air, Delta’s anti-trust immunized revenue-sharing joint venture partner across the Pacific, may be broken if a pilot is so bold as to seek alcohol inflight rather than sneaking it inflight, and a crewmember who protects the aircraft winds up disciplined — more seriously, even, than the pilot.

(HT: One Mile at a Time)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I used to be bummed that Chase Ultimate Rewards lost Korean Air as a transfer partner. Not anymore if this is the way Korean treats its employees who do the right thing…

  2. I am guessing that this is a remnant of the corporate mindset that has plagued Asian airlines (and unfortunately caused more than one crash) in which the inferior-ranking personnel are discouraged from questioning, contradicting, or reporting the potentially dangerous actions of a superior.

  3. Air France pilots used to have a (small) glass of wine with their meals until the 1980s from what I have heard.

    They fixed that “culture” issue. Now Korean Air needs to fix their deeper culture issue too.

  4. Must be a Korean seniority cultural thing. Remember the Asiana accident at SFO a few years ago where a senior pilot wasn’t questioned by a lower rank cockpit crew because the plane was too low for landing ?

  5. Without knowing Korean Air’s policy and the requirements of the aviation authority in the Republic of Korea, it is hard to say that Korean Air did anything wrong regarding the pilot’s verbal reprimand. The pilot did not drink any alcohol. He merely asked for it and later claimed to have been joking. Does expressing the desire to consume alcohol but not drinking anything violate those policies? Probably not. Even in the US, I think the FAA only bans the consumption of alcohol or operating with alcohol in a pilot’s system. There is a big difference between drinking and expressing a desire to drink. That distinction was probably relied upon by the pilot’s union.

    The FA was demoted for the altercation and “revealing an internal issue.” That last part may be the key. The altercation probably was somewhere in the cabin not on the flight deck. It would be very upsetting for passengers to overhear allegations about the pilot drinking. Upsetting passengers or the potential for it could be the reason for the FA’s demotion.

  6. There’s a cockpit recording of a KAL crash from a few years ago where the contract FO is telling the Captain, we’re too low …we need to go around. The Captain responds shut up. The FO repeats it and I seem to recall the Captain yells again. Then they landed in the water short of the runway. Thankfully no one was killed.

  7. Gulf Air crash in 2000 was due to a junior pilot not challenging the senior pilot due to ‘culture’

  8. If people knew what goes on in the cockpit of KAL they would never fly them. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

  9. @john – The pilot told the same joke three times during the flight and yet nobody realized he was joking? Give me a break…

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