GULLIVER is rarely fazed by what happens below the line of his posts. Receiving the occasional shoeing from readers—sometimes insightful, sometimes not—goes with the job. And he has certainly found his views swayed by well-reasoned arguments he finds there.
But he was truly gobsmacked at the discussion that ensued from a piece last year about the sexualisation of flight attendants. The post noted a few of the seedier airline hiring practices, such as asking potential recruits, some just 15, to take part in a bikini competition, or carriers refusing to employ married women. It then concluded with what seemed to be an uncontroversial suggestion: female cabin crew should be chosen for their abilities, not for their allure.
It turns out that such woolly liberal thinking is merely the product of the bubble he lives in, according to some readers. “A mixture of silly puritanism and pseudo-egalitarianism,” said one. “Boo hoo why do pretty women exist and make people happy by being attractive? Why can’t everybody be ugly and miserable,” mocked another. And so it went on for several pages.
So it is with trepidation that this blog turns to the comments made last week by Akbar Al Baker, the boss of Qatar Airways. Speaking in Dublin, Mr Al Baker derided his American competitors, saying there is no need to fly on “crap” carriers where “you know you will always be served by grandmothers”. By way of comparison, he said, “the average age of my cabin crew is only 26 years”.
The remark, which was filmed and uploaded onto Youtube, was an ad-lib and drew a big laugh from his audience. But there are two problems with it. The “grandmother” comment first. 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. Poor service on America’s airlines can be put down to many things—a lack of competition, perhaps, meaning that customers cannot switch to friendlier rivals, or powerful unions that make it hard to get rid of poor performing staff. But the age of cabin crew members is irrelevant.
Some will no doubt point out that Mr Al Baker did not specifically single out female crew. Qatar Airways employs young men as well as women. True. But here lies Gulliver’s second problem with Mr Al Baker’s statement. It is only a couple of years since the airline caved in to international pressure and redrew the contracts that female flight attendants had to sign. Until then, women on the airline’s staff had been banned from getting pregnant or even married. Women were not allowed to be dropped off at work by unrelated men. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN’s labour agency, had been scathing about Qatar Airways’ treatment of women. Even as he belatedly made the airline more equitable, Mr Al Baker bemoaned that it had been the subject of “vendetta”. “I don’t give a damn about the ILO,” he scoffed. “I am there to run a successful airline.”
Qatar Airways is right to be proud of its high levels of service, just as America’s airlines should be ashamed of theirs. But, given its record of discrimination, justifying that advantage through ageism and thinly veiled sexism is misguided.