Things got a little awks at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) AGM in Sydney yesterday when Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker took charge of the organisation for the next 12 months.
The boss of “the world’s best airline” is known for offering statements that get people stirred up. But when you’re running the country’s flagship airline, which will post a loss this year because of a boycott of Qatar by four of its Arab neighbours – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – you probably end up feeling a little pugilistic.
But on Tuesday, after becoming IATA chairman, Al Baker pledged as proceedings wound up to “most importantly, to try to control controversial statements made by me”.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce was sitting beside Al Baker.
“Good luck with that, Akbar.”
It was prophetic and futile.
One of the key themes of this year’s gathering was female participation in the aviation industry. And just a few minutes later, Al Baker was asked about IATA’s plans for gender equality.
Even his initial response was taken the wrong way by some when asked specifically about the Middle East “having the lowest representation of women”.
“Well it is not at Qatar Airways,” His Excellency replied.
Al Baker has a point. His airline helped pioneer women in aviation in the region and around 44% of the workforce is female, all the way up to senior VP.
But the questioner struck back immediately, pointing out “but certainly it’s being led by a man, so…”
And that’s when His Excellency forgot to read the memo that comedy is not part of the IATA chairman role.
“Well, of course it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position,” he said.
The room turned to uproar and amid startled laughter there were jeers from the media too.
Boom. Global headlines. And the world’s women uniting with the rest of the Middle East in boycotts against Qatar.
Even if he was joking, it was a stupid comment to make in his position.
Alan Joyce, a man who’s copped a fair bit of political flack for his championing of diversity, couldn’t help but smile and offered a gentle chiding.
“Akbar said he was going to stop saying controversial things. He lasted 10 minutes. Ten minutes!” Joyce teased.
Have a listen to it unfolding:
The audible gasp from the crowd as @qatarairways GCEO and @IATA Chairman Akbar Al Baker "jokes" only a man can be a CEO is amazing. Listen for yourself. @Qantas CEO Alan Joyce cutting him off was both good and bad, I suppose. #IATAAGM #iawa @WomenInAviation @WomenOfAviation pic.twitter.com/rrrFND3G5E
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) June 5, 2018
Once the initial chaos subsided, Al Baker tried to put his airline’s case forward acknowledging “we have a big program” but he’s trying to address it with initiatives such as 60% of pilot scholarships going to women.
“We see that they have huge potential” in senior management, he said.
But the damage had been done.
Less than 20 hours later Qatar Airways and His Excellency issued an apology, but adding that his comment was sensationalised by the media.
“I would like to offer my heartfelt apologies for any offence 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,” he said.
But if the self-described “controversial figure” couldn’t pick that was always going to happen, then he’s far from the smartest CEO in the room.
H.E Mr. Akbar Al Baker: I would like to offer my heartfelt apologies for any offence 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 and has been sensationalised by the media. pic.twitter.com/M07Wczk08B
— Qatar Airways (@qatarairways) June 5, 2018
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