Referring to his role as chief executive of the Gulf carrier, Akbar Al Baker stunned a press conference on Tuesday by saying: “Of course, it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position.”
The comments came just after he became chair of the International Air Transport Association’s board of governors for a one-year term.
He later defended Qatar Airways’ record on gender equality but failed to quash mounting criticism. The airline issued a statement on Tuesday referring to his “lightheartedness” at press conferences.
A day later it released another statement from Al Baker, who has run the carrier since 1997.
“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,” he said.
He added that women comprised 44% of the airline’s workforce, and “the dedication, drive and skill they bring to their jobs tells me that no role is too tough for them, at all levels of the organisation”.
The Gulf carrier has a close business partnership with British Airways and is also the largest single shareholder in BA’s parent company, IAG.
Qatar Airways has caused controversy in the past for its treatment of its predominantly female cabin crew, at one time firing them for being pregnant.
Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk
However, Al Baker said in the statement: “Qatar Airways firmly believes in gender equality in the workplace and our airline has been a pioneer in our region in this regard, as the first airline to employ female pilots, as one of the first to train and employ female engineers, and with females represented through to senior vice-president positions within the airline reporting directly to me.”
He said he supported all Iata initiatives to promote the advancement of women in the industry.
It is not the first time Al Baker’s comments have provoked controversy. At a dinner speech in Ireland last year, he said US airlines were “crap” and their passengers were “always being served by grandmothers”, while boasting that “the average age of my cabin crew is only 26”. He later apologised for his “careless” remarks.
More about: #Qatar-Airways