Photographer: Chris Rank/ Bloomberg
South Korea

Why Some of the Best Holiday Stories Happen On Planes

’Tis the season to feel delicious schadenfreude as that entitled, unruly passenger in first class gets his comeuppance.

On December 5, Cho Hyun-ah took a seat in the first-class section of Korean Air Flight 86, headed for Incheon, South Korea. As the plane was taxiing at JFK International Airport, a flight attendant served Cho macadamia nuts in a bag. She would have preferred them on a plate.

Cho, who is the daughter of the airline’s chairman, and was—then—their vice president in charge of in-flight services, was irate. She summoned the senior crew member on board and, according to the Guardian, “demanded an explanation for the mistake. When his answer dissatisfied her, she ordered him off the plane, forcing it to return to the gate so that the offending crew member could be ejected from the aircraft.” He told Korea’s KBS television that she called him names, hit him with a folder of documents, and forced him to kneel and apologize.

Back on the ground, order was restored, and the incident came to its highly fulfilling resolution, the woman’s shamelessness in the air sternly, humiliatingly censured. “I failed to raise her properly,” Cho’s father, Cho Yang-ho, said in lament. (For those alarmed by this patrilineal severity, note that snack-gate was not the first of her airborne transgressions; last year, Cho flew to Hawaii to give birth to her twin sons, so they would be U.S citizens and could avoid South Korea’s mandatory military service.) Father and daughter bowed their heads in a public display of shame. Ms. Cho resigned from her position at the airline.

Beyond the family, the South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport found that cabin crew members had lied to government investigators to protect her. A ministry official charged with airline safety announced that South Korea will impose a disciplinary “suspension of flights or a financial penalty against Korean Air for violating aviation laws.”

Is it wrong to find this tale heartwarming? Classic holiday season stories like A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life show moral orders that are fractured, then restored, greed and selfishness conquered, with lessons for all about what’s truly important in life. But stories like that of Cho Hyun-ah are a modern offshoot of this genre, morality plays that are never more satisfying than during the holidays, when half the country, it seems, is traveling someplace by plane. The best involve first-class passengers, the most privileged among us, those steeped in frequent flier points, stuffed with Sky Miles, who have nothing to complain about but complain anyway—and ultimately get their just deserts.

Stars may not be just like us in most other venues—but on a plane, some have to face the realization that in fact, they may be subject to the same rules. A metal tube bouncing in the updrafts at 28,000—hasn’t anyone heard of Icarus?—may be the only place where Gerard Depardieu isn’t simply allowed to pee wherever he wants, and where Alec Baldwin ultimately faces the same penalties we all do. (Once he was booted off a plane because he wouldn’t stop playing Words with Friends.)

A few weeks ago, Prince William flew commercial. He was on his way to see the president at the White House, but in the sky, he was in the flight attendants’ dominion. The sky turns out to be quite equalizing. Last month, the frontwoman of the Cranberries was for allegedly attacking a flight attendant. Diana Ross was once detained for five hours for a similar assault. Also at Heathrow, Courtney Love once was arrested for “endangering an aircraft.”

Not to be outdone in this department, the former Mrs. Trump, Ivana, grew enraged at children on a plane in 2009, after changing her first-class seat assignment. As a police spokeswoman said, “From initial contact until Ms. Trump left the property, she was saying 'f--- you' to all the deputies" and calling children "little f---ers.” She got tossed off the flight.

An airplane cabin, where a seatmate’s elbow shouldn’t go a millimeter past the centerline of an armrest, lends itself to this kind of drama, not to mention schadenfreude. The boarding process may well have been designed to create it. Nerves are up from the first security camera and body scan; then there’s the rushing toward delays, the lines, the line-cuts, the glares, and the humiliating de-belting and de-shoeing while select passengers glide peacefully through, direct to their gate (Paging Temple Grandin!). Undergoing this sort of treatment, everyone wants to be made to suffer in the same way, and when they're not, there will be hell to pay.

In the cramped community onboard, it’s no wonder people are concerned about their personal space and prepared to defend it. According to the New York Times, in the past four decades, the average American has gained more than 20 pounds, an extra 2.5 inches in waistline thickness. But coach seats remain around 17 or 18 inches wide, and then the space between rows has fallen about 10 percent over the past 20 years, from 34 inches down to between 30 and 32 inches (as low as 28, for some). Knee defenders have stoked quasi-political debates.  There were at least three right-to-recline disputes onboard in just one week this fall. Arm-rest-domination maneuvers may be the new krav maga. On most planes a state of low-level conflict exists, occasionally blossoming into all-out, open war.

In 2011, two passengers on a flight from D.C. got into a verbal spat that crescendoed with a smack in the head. The pilot turned the flight around—but there were still around 57 tons of fuel left (it was destined for Ghana). An air traffic controller had it fly around for 25 minutes more, but not before two Air Force fighter jets, noticing strange behavior, got involved and began to shadow the airliner.

Acts of individuality that on the street would scarcely provoke a raised eyebrow, on a plane become full-scale spectacles and police actions. Last year, a flight headed to JFK from Los Angeles made an emergency stop at Kansas City International because a woman wouldn't stop singing Whitney Houston songs. (She was subdued, handcuffed, and removed from the plane, crooning.)

Animals on a plane offer a rich subgenre all their own. Last May, a woman brought her service dog, Truffles, on a flight from L.A. to Philadelphia. It relieved itself in the aisle—twice—and the plane disembarked in Kansas City. Last month, a pig and its owner were taken off a flight set to leave from Connecticut when the animal “became disruptive.”

Wild creatures on planes are from an entirely different dramatic genus, as Samuel L. Jackson knows well. Snakes slither into cabins of planes, and even onto wings. The remarkable story of the 10-foot python fighting for its life (and losing) on the wing of an airplane on its way to Papua New Guinea is probably the only instance where airline passengers (perhaps recognizing in the python’s struggle some of their own predicament) cheered for the snake.

In the air, anything goes to combat airborne scofflaws—one drunk passenger had to be duct taped to his seat.

Safely back on the ground, order is restored. The unruly passengers, who rebelled and thought they could make their own rules are brought to satisfying justice. Just as in It’s a Wonderful Life, we’re reassured that goodness is rewarded, that fairness, playing by the rules and concern for ones’ fellows is rewarded—and transgressions are sternly punished. In the next few days, many will think: Would that it could happen to the person in the next seat.