Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker, who said his job was too difficult for a woman, has offered his “heartfelt apologies” for the comments and defended his record of promoting women.
The airline boss caused a firestorm Tuesday when he said Qatar Airways had to be run by a man because of the challenges the job involved. But later he said his initial comment had been a joke. Al Baker is the new chairman of the International Air Transport Association’s board of governors, one of the world’s biggest boys’ clubs.
“I would like to offer my heartfelt apologies for any offense caused by my comment yesterday, which runs counter to my track record of expanding the role of women in leadership throughout the Qatar Airways Group,” Al Baker said in an emailed statement.
At a conference organized by CAPA Centre for Aviation in Sydney, Al Baker was asked again to explain himself. “It was just a joke,” he said. “Everybody laughed. I thought that was the end of the story.”
Few people laughed at a press conference on Tuesday when Al Baker told reporters that Qatar Airways “has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.”
The controversy started when Al Baker was asked what could be done about the woeful representation of women in the aviation industry in the Middle East. That’s not true for Qatar Airways, Al Baker told the reporter.
His comments contrast with efforts by some industry rivals to increase female representation at the upper echelons. Qantas Airways Ltd.’s senior management is 40% female, including the heads of the international and frequent-flier loyalty businesses, CEO Alan Joyce said. SkyTeam appointed Delta Air Lines Inc. executive Kristin Colvile as chief executive of the airline alliance earlier this month.
Not only is diversity a competitive advantage, Joyce said, “It’s the right business thing to do and it’s the right moral thing to do.”
Earlier in the week, IATA members from airlines across the world had listened to a panel discussing ways to address gender imbalances in the industry. When the IATA board posed for a group photo last week, there was one woman among 26 airline chiefs — Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of U.K. regional carrier Flybe Group Plc.
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“What disturbs me when I look at the aviation industry is that we’re not succeeding in encouraging girls to consider aviation as a career,” IAG SA CEO Willie Walsh said at the CAPA event. “It’s important that people look at our industry as an industry that they can aspire to join.”
Al Baker clarified his position Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haidi Lun after his press conference.
“I was only referring to one individual,” he said. “I was not referring to the staff in general.”
The company followed up with a statement later, reaffirming its commitment to gender equality. “While I am known in the media for some lightheartedness at press conferences, it is crucial that I emphasize the facts as I did today and the importance of women representatives in the airline industry,” the statement read. The comment “has been sensationalized by the media,” he said.
Qatar Airways staff is more than 44% female, the company said.
The carrier has female pilots and female senior vice presidents, he said. There’s no gender inequality at Qatar Airways, Al Baker said in the interview.
Asked whether he’d welcome a female executive as CEO, Al Baker said: “It will be my pleasure to have a female CEO candidate I could then develop to become CEO after me.”