Running an Airline Is Easy for the Old Boys' Club

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- He didn’t really say that, did he? The comment from Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker that only a man could do his job – because it’s a “very challenging position” – is so ridiculous it’s hard to know how to address it seriously. But given the power of his position and the chronic diversity problem in his industry, it’s impossible to laugh.

You can listen to his appalling effort at humor here.

Al Baker made a pretty lame attempt to row back on the comments in an interview with Bloomberg television on Tuesday. But it’s hardly the first time he’s courted controversy. Indeed, he seems to take pride in it

Last year, he criticized airlines in the U.S. for employing “grandmothers” as cabin crew, contrasting this with the average age of their counterparts at Qatar: 26, apparently. Here’s his letter of apology. On other occasions he’s attacked trade unions for supposedly making companies uncompetitive. And, after a row about Gulf airlines allegedly using state subsidies to add flights to the U.S., he reportedly said he’d hang the Delta Air Lines CEO “on a wall” if he ever met him.

Of course, were he boss of a publicly-listed airline, Al Baker probably wouldn’t have made most of these remarks. Michael O’Leary at Ryanair Holdings PLC has been uncommonly rude at times, but not to this degree. As CEO of a state-owned airline, the only person Al Baker needs to keep onside is Qatar’s Emir.

Yet Al Baker has also just taken over as chairman of the airline industry body IATA, whose board is made up mostly of company CEOs. As Bloomberg News noted in this alarming piece on aviation’s diversity problem, almost all of them are men.

Al Baker’s term lasts only a year, but that seems too long. It’s essential that the industry does more to fix the gender imbalance in senior jobs and Al Baker’s comments show he is not a credible person to lead that effort. There’s also the profound lack of female pilots to address, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleagues Elaine He and David Fickling have highlighted.

His comments also raise another question that has nothing to do with gender: Is it really so “challenging” to run a big airline? The “very large” yearly loss expected by Qatar Airways isn’t Al Baker’s fault. Airspace restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have pushed up costs. But Qatar was arguably no paragon of efficiency before the blockade.

As U.S. airlines have pointed out, Qatar is among a trio of Gulf carriers that have benefited from billions of dollars of state largesse. (The three deny receiving subsidies.) Al Baker acknowledges that if he runs out of money, Qatar will simply inject more equity. His idea to counter the U.S. lobbying by taking a stake in American Airlines Group Inc. backfired spectacularly

This isn’t to say that his American counterparts have a much harder time of it. U.S. airlines were saved by the country’s generous Chapter 11 bankruptcy system, which allowed them to offload liabilities. The big three legacy carriers have paid little or no federal income taxes lately because of previous losses and their profit margins have risen because they’ve been allowed to consolidate to an unhealthy degree.

In fact, in an era of cheap capital and relatively low fuel prices, running an airline has become much easier – and that’s especially true in the Gulf and U.S. Budget airlines have generally been much better managed and it’s noteworthy that Britain’s EasyJet Plc was run successfully for years by Carolyn McCall.

Al Baker is guilty of being hugely demeaning to women. He’s also over-egging how difficult his own job is. One wonders why IATA would want him in charge.

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