This story was updated on July 13 with Akbar Al Baker’s apology
Qatar Airways’ CEO is facing an international backlash this week for “incredibly offensive” comments he recently made about flight attendants.
During a speech in Dublin, Akbar Al Baker boasted that the average age of his airline’s cabin crew is 26 years old, adding:
“So there is no need for you to travel on these crap American carriers. You know you are always being served by grandmothers on American carriers.”
The outspoken official’s remarks were received with applause and laughter during his speech. But they were immediately denounced by rival American Airlines.
Jill Surdek, vice president of flight service for American Airlines Group, said in a message to employees that the comments were “both sexist and ageist at the same time.”
Reacting to the speech, a blogger for The Economist used the incident to demonstrate how firmly entrenched sexism in the sky remains.
“Calling the service on America’s airlines ‘crap’ is fine; not many flyers mistake their treatment on United for good service, for example. It is no doubt also correct that flight attendants in America are older than in the Gulf.
But correlating those two facts hammers home the idea that the job of cabin crew is to be gawped at; that if a stewardess has lost her looks, she should be discarded and replaced by a younger model, regardless of how good she is at her job.”
On Wednesday, Al Baker apologised for the remarks in a letter to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA).
He said in the letter that his recent “careless” remarks did not reflect his “true sentiments” about cabin crew.
“For the cabin crew serving aboard all air carriers, professionalism, skill and dedication are the qualities that matter. I was wrong to imply that other factors, like age, are relevant,” he added.
Backlash in the US
American Airlines, which Qatar Airways is seeking to buy a stake in, was not the only organization in the US to take offense.
The Partnership for Open & Fair Skies called his comments “misogynistic and demeaning.”
The group represents US carriers including United, American and Delta airlines in a campaign to stop Gulf carriers’ expansion into the US.
In a statement, chief spokesperson of the coalition Jill Zuckman said:
“Those executives at the US Travel Association, FedEx and JetBlue who have repeatedly defended Al Baker must unequivocally condemn his comments and explain to women everywhere why they want to outsource American jobs to this man.”
Several unions have also weighed in, with the Air Line Pilots Association (the US pilots’ union) saying that Al Baker had “sunk to a new low.”
Meanwhile Bob Ross, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, defended his colleagues at American Airlines, calling them “well-seasoned and highly-trained professionals.”
This spat between the two carriers comes after Qatar Airways disclosed that it was planning to spend more than $800 million to purchase up to a 10 percent stake in American Airlines.
The carriers are both members of the same global alliance, oneworld.
In a statement last month, Qatar Airways said it saw the US carrier as “a strong investment opportunity” and “a good oneworld Alliance partner.”
In response, American CEO Doug Parker called the airlines’ intention “puzzling at best and concerning at worst.”