Sounding Off: Qatar Air CEO Is Known for His Outspoken CommentsBy
Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker, forced to apologize this week after saying a woman couldn’t do his job, is no stranger to controversy.
While he’s said he was joking, provocative comments have been a hallmark of Al Baker’s two decades at the top of the Mideast carrier. That’s gained him a reputation for candor -- and exposure to a sometimes-harsh spotlight -- in an industry that’s usually strictly on-message. Here are a few of his most outspoken salvos:
Long in the Tooth
Al Baker issued a rare public apology last year for his unflattering description of U.S. flight attendants as “grandmothers” at a private gala in Dublin. The remarks touched off a firestorm of criticism from labor unions and Qatar’s ally American Airlines Group Inc., which labeled them “both sexist and ageist.”
Planemakers haven’t escaped Al Baker’s barbs. A fractious relationship with Airbus SE reached a nadir at the 2011 Dubai Air Show when he boycotted a planned order announcement and used a press conference with rival Boeing Co. to say the European company was “still learning how to make planes.” The companies were reconciled and a deal sealed soon after, with Al Baker telling Bloomberg TV: “Maybe I’m more difficult, or maybe I’m crazy.”
Al Baker branded U.S. rival Delta Air Lines Inc. “wicked” and its CEO Ed Bastian “arrogant” in 2016 for what he said was the U.S. carrier’s part in ruining his company’s first flight to Atlanta. The outburst came after Qatar’s Airbus A380 superjumbo wasn’t allocated a gate when it arrived, forcing passengers to disembark via mobile stairs and shuttle buses.
Relations between the White House and leading Gulf airlines soured from 2015 as the carriers began to grab an increasing share of lucrative long-haul traffic. Al Baker led the fightback against claims that Mideast operators had benefited from illegal aid, saying U.S. carriers were guilty of “bullying tactics,” were “greedy,” and provided a “crap” service. A subsequent bid for a stake in American Airlines, rejected by the U.S. giant, led to a more personal spat, with Al Baker labeling the company and CEO Doug Parker as “frightened” of its alliance partner.
The CEO has been outspoken in defending his home nation against a Saudi-led trade embargo imposed a year ago over its links to Iran. He likened the measures to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin during the Cold War, and used a prestigious awards ceremony at which his company was declared the world’s top airline for customer service to make an impassioned Oscars-style speech condemning Qatar’s political rivals as “big bullies.”
Qatar Air doesn’t have unions, with Al Baker -- who has no shareholders to answer to, only the company’s government owner -- pulling no punches in suggesting that organized labor represents a drag on business. Asked about Deutsche Lufthansa AG counterpart Carsten Spohr’s struggles with strikes during a trip to Hamburg in 2014, he didn’t hold back, saying: “I’m sure he envies me very much, because we don’t have to take the crap of the unions.”