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.
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.”
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.
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.”