The chief executive of Qatar Airways has apologised for saying a woman could not do his job, saying it was “just a joke”.
Akbar al Baker made his remark in Sydney on Tuesday, shortly after he was appointed chairman of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) at its annual meeting.
Responding to a question on whether a woman could do his job, Mr al Baker told reporters: “Of course it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position.”
The conference – often dominated by profit predictions and headwinds facing the sector – included a focus on gender diversity as only six of its 280-member airlines have female chief executives.
Image: Qatar Airways was recently named best global airline by AirHelp
Mr al Baker responded to the backlash over his comment by saying: “Quite frankly I think the press took it out of context.
“They blew it out of proportion. It was just a joke. I didn’t mean it in the way it was meant to be… I apologise for it.”
Asked whether he really believed only a man could do his job, he added: “No, I don’t believe that.
“As a matter of fact (at) Air Italy the majority shareholder has shortlisted women to be CEO and as minority shareholder we are actively encouraging that.”
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He also defended his airline’s record, saying Qatar was the first Middle East carrier to have female pilots and said 44% of its staff were women.
Mr al Baker is one of the airline industry’s most colourful characters – known for a strong sense of humour – but has form for controversial comments.
He faced PR turbulence last year after calling US flight attendants “grandmothers” during a trade row with US airlines – a remark for which he also said sorry.
Qatar was recently rated the best global airline by compensation service AirHelp, while the Gulf state’s Hamad International Airport – on which Mr al Baker was a lead developer – also scored best among top world destinations.
The diversity issue cast a shadow over the IATA meeting, the association also has only two women on its 31-member board.
The boss of British Airways’ owner IAG, Willie Walsh, has weighed in on the issue.
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He called for IATA to take a lead on improving diversity in the industry as a whole: “If you look at the board it is predominantly middle-aged white men from Europe,” he said.
“We have more diversity on the board now than we have had for a long time, and we have to strive to improve that situation.”