Qatar’s CEO Made Awful Misogynistic Remarks. Here’s What He Should Have Said Instead.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker declared that ‘on “crap American carriers” you’ll “always be served by grandmothers.”

There’s a point here, and al-Baker made it in the worst possible way.

  • While flight attendants aren’t exclusively women the image here is of young women valued predominantly for their looks. Akbar al-Baker says the average age of a flight attendant on his airline is 26.

  • There’s no inherent connection between age and providing good service. And beauty, while maybe part of Qatar’s brand image, certainly isn’t related to providing service either.

Akbar al-Baker is his own worst enemy. He gives his adversaries ammunition every time he opens his mouth.

But U.S. airlines do lag in service. The major US carriers, especially American, offer a better hard product in business class than Emirates or Etihad. But service so often undermines the huge investments they made.

It’s not because the average age of U.S. flight attendants is higher than the average age of Qatar flight attendants. Although in the uniquely U.S. case there’s a loose relationship between age and providing good service.

There are many great U.S. airline flight attendants, and indeed great flight attendants of all ages. At the major U.S. airlines they’re great because of an internal drive to provide good service, not because it’s a requirement of the job.

American’s Doug Parker is handing out big raises to employees without asking anything in return. He’s incentivizing current service levels not demanding better service for customers.

Happy motivated employees feel they are paid fairly, like and respect colleagues, and see themselves as a part of something bigger than themselves, on a mission. Pay is only a small piece of that.

But in the U.S. there’s really no connection at all between rewards — or even keeping your job — and providing good service versus reading People magazine in the galley.

  • Hang around a long time and you make more money
  • And that’s largely true whether you offer good service or poor service.

Southwest flight attendants are unionized but they have fun and offer great service. Delta flight attendants aren’t unionized, but their work rules and scheduling have many of the same features of their unionized counterparts at other airlines. Delta service is arguably marginally better on average than American’s or United’s. It’s not unions per se that drive this.

At the same time the kinds of rules often found in union-negotiated contracts (and in non-union airlines who offer similar terms) make it hard for employees to succeed or feel passionate about their jobs.

The jobs they perform are based on seniority, not performance. The potential to personally succeed by performing better than average is limited. There are very few consequences when coworkers don’t perform well. Working alongside coworkers who are rewarded just as well as you are while they do the minimum possible is demoralizing for the best employees.

And a seniority system locks employees into their jobs and make them feel trapped, they may be unhappy but they can’t jump to another employer because they’d start at the bottom and lose their accumulated seniority and pay.

The longer an employee stays on in this system the more jaundiced they become. The system beats them down. Some people can excel in spite of that system, but on the whole younger flight attendants simply haven’t been a part of it as long — their service hasn’t yet degraded. And that’s equally true for men as women.

Akbar al-Baker was obnoxious. He should apologize. It’s not age or beauty which drives service.

And US airlines should apologize too — to the employees they’ve demoralized because it’s difficult to provide great service day in and day out when colleagues around you don’t, when the longer you stay with your head down the more you make.

I have incredible respect for people who can stay motivated and excel day after day under these circumstances. They’re the ones who ought to be applauded.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I am sorry Gary but he has a point, and after the attack video Delta (also cry and pity poor american carriers) published recently, I think its fair game. My last american flight a couple years ago, on UA in C, the flight attendant looked old enough to be my grandmother. I felt guilty having her bring food and drinks to me to the point that I refrained myself from asking for anything I wanted or needed outside of meal times;… I am sorry but this is not the way I should feel when I fly in Business or First and therefore I have refuse to take a US airline ever since when I have the possibility to chose another carrier.

  2. Hi Gary , you said that “The major US carriers, especially American, offer a better hard product in business class than Emirates or Etihad.” What is your reasoning for that? Somehow I think that I liked the A380 on Emirates better than what UA usually offers. TIA.

  3. Gary,

    Your article is great, but your title is B.S.

    What that CEO said was obnoxious — but it was not misogynistic. It was ageist.

    I know that “misogynistic” is a trendy word these days and it gets you more views, but come on!

  4. There’s obviously a kernel of truth in al-Baker’s inappropriate comments, and I’d bet given a choice (at least a private choice) most airline passengers would prefer to be served by younger flight attendants. And I’m pretty sure most male passengers would prefer to be served by attractive, young female flight attendants. This is definitely a product advantage for Qatar.

    Of course, there’s not that much USA airlines can do about this. And, in the scheme of societal norms, that’s probably a good thing. Just like you’re not going to get the Railway Labor Act repealed for pilots (even though it’s illogical and counter-productive), you’re not going to get seniority rules revoked for flight attendants. This means international flight attendants flying the “best” or “easiest” routes on USA routes are always going to skew old. And I agree with you that, for many reasons, older flight attendants tend to provide a little worse service than younger flight attendants.

    I do think there’s room for innovative efforts to encourage flight attendants to provide better service. Gordon Bethune has some success improving attendance by raffling off cars to employees with perfect attendance. I always wondered if passengers had an easy way to compliment a flight attendant (like pressing a button on their IFE monitor), and if this praise resulted in more recognition for good flight attendants, whether service would improve. Seems like someone should try.

  5. @tommyleo, you make a valid point in that the attack was, in fact, ageist. But because it defined the FA role as female and attacked only women of age, it was misogynistic too. Prejudice and bias aren’t binary, in that a statement can be sexist AND racist, homophobic AND misandric, etc, etc.

    That said, the sentiment he inartfully articulated is part of the imbalance between some foreign and some US carriers. I can look no further than my own aunt to see someone who is, by any reasonable definition, a poor employee, but because of negotiated seniority rules, she gets to be a premium customer facing FA with DL. 50 years ago, she was a marginally capable junior flight attendant with NW that happened to look really good (at a time where that was the most important attribute of a FA). Today, she’s still marginally capable, but the intervening years have hardened her personality, her contractual protections have emboldened her to do as little as possible, and although she’s not at all bad looking for her age, at 72, she’s not exactly turning heads.

    Truthfully, I could care less what a flight attendant looks like or how old they are, but truisms about them being “there for our safety” notwithstanding, being an FA is a customer service job. If someone is unable or unwilling to provide quality customer service, they shouldn’t retain that job.

    Now abandoning the seniority protocols that US carriers abide by isn’t a panacea. Placing customer service scores ahead of safety and rules adherence in promotion and retention rules opens the door to abuses including ageism, sexism, and other forms of bias, but it seems ill-advised to ignore it completely, which is what’s happening today.

  6. Al Baker is wrong. There is no service on U.S. airlines. The grandmothers (he’s totally right about this) are reading magazines, chatting with each other (often about the airline or passengers) but certainly not focused on service.

    Am glad he said it. I have an admiration for a guy who calls it like it is, as opposed to the constant lying that comes from the U.S. airlines.

  7. Apparently this guy has not been allowed out of the oasis to perceive reality. If he is referencing the old Northwest Orient, he is correct, as the joke was the aged stewardesses had walkers and canes.

    However, today, I would state that contrary to his blatantly biased statement, I have found on every flight that the more senior flight attendants on American, particularly in F Class, are superb to their juniors. They still appreciate what service is and hustle throughout the flight. The younger FAs have consistently been quite disappointing–they do not know, or do not care (supervision issue!) what expectations of service they need to fulfill in F Class.

    So, no thanks, I’ll take the FAs on American 35 and older, who still have a sense of pride and decorum; do not regard the job with a “union mentality” as I have consistently experienced with every FA under 35.

  8. Seriously Dudes: If you are a straight man, and would prefer to be served by nubile young women on the plane, it makes you shallow, sexist, inappropriate, and/or maybe even a male chauvinistic pig, but Not a woman hater (ie misogynistic) or anti-woman.

  9. What, pray tell, is the “awful, misogynistic” part about

    “The flight attendants on my airline are younger than the flight attendants on American carriers.”

  10. Lol. Its not mysoginistic. Surely the statement isn’t pleasant tough many said its true. But clearly not a mysoginistic. Just a click bait.

    To repeat same story in another article with another title, have you fallen this low?

  11. @Chris Jensen — I was specific about American whose seats on the 787-9 and some 777-200s are among the best in the world, and on the 777-300ERs are comparable to Cathay Pacific and EVA. Meanwhile Emirates 777s have angled seats not even fully flat and they’re doing 7-across lie flat on new 777s (not even retrofitting existing ones). Etihad business is pretty dense as well.

  12. The post entirely missed the point of the ME3 argument – subsidy. This entire trade dispute is based around the allegations that the state-owned ME3 are violating the aviation treaties with UAE and Qater with their $50 billion+ in ongoing government subsidy. That’s why the US airlines are asking to open consultations to negotiate the point, as is appropriate in any trade dispute. Anyone’s perceived quality of service have nothing to do with it, and Al Baker knows it, why is why he obfuscates by making comments like this.

  13. @James — wrong.

    US airlines are heavily subsidized.
    US airlines are the most profitable in the world with historic highs in employment
    There’s no economic theory to support protecting healthy mature domestic industries
    Doing so would steal from the wallets of consumers to subsidize large companies
    Gulf carriers are huge Boeing customers
    Open Skies supports jobs here because of the passengers carried by these airlines, which are also great for Hawaiian, jetBlue, Alaska
    Fedex relies on its Dubai hub
    Despite the claimed ‘existential threat’ Delta stock price is at an all time high so the market is calling bullshit

  14. @Gary — You’re a hopeless case on this, but just because US airlines are significantly profitable, doesn’t mean that trade violations should be ignored. When Google is banned from China, does this mean the US gov’t should do nothing because Google makes a ton of money elsewhere and maybe the government subsidized their early operations when Al Gore invented the internet? Of course not.

    It is beyond any reasonable disagreement that the massive expansion of the Middle East airlines costs US airlines profits and US airline employees jobs. You can dispute the numbers, but you can’t dispute this reality. The market is what it is: we have no USA airline service to the Gulf countries and almost no USA airline service to India because of the the ME3.

    Even you have reluctantly acknowledged that the ME3 airlines are heavily subsidized. You go off on the absurd idea that the US airlines are also heavily subsidized (or at least were), and there’s obviously nobody who’s going to persuade you of the inaccuracy of your position. But even if you were somehow right, should the US gov’t do nothing about the CURRENT unfairness? Are your free luxury flights to Asia really more important than the interests of millions of USA airline employees and shareholders?

    The only credible argument for doing nothing about this matter is that these unfair trade practices bring in millions of dollars in extra revenue from visitors who wouldn’t come to the USA if they had to pay unsubsidized airfares. And that they benefit Americans like you who get to take flights they wouldn’t take — or would have to pay much more for — if their airfares weren’t subsidized. That’s the REAL issue here. If you want to argue this position (which the US hotel industry argues), fine. I think the majority of people would disagree with it, but it’s a rational argument. You would do yourself a great favor by acknowledging this reality, instead of serving as the Minister of Middle East Propaganda and spouting disinformation on this topic.

  15. @Gary, you are a hopeless snowflake. Not one, but two threads in one day on al-Baker’s comments. LOL. He is 100% correct and it is refreshing to see yet another leader that doesn’t kowtow to the PC crowd.

  16. @iahphx – it’s fine for you to be a mercantilist but don’t simply ignore the arguments that run counter to your position. Notice that nowhere in your comment is a reference to the US consumers whose incomes get redistributed to large airlines as a result of the policies you favor.

  17. even flight attendants say the same thing he said. Many times in the crew room I hear ” 40 years! She needs to go!” Or ” he’s so old I guess his door is a blocked exits” , The sound of the breaks on the bar cart is really her joints.
    So we are just as guilty when we see older flight attendants. So to act shocked is Ridiculous. Flight attendants make 10x more rude comments on older flight attendants.

  18. Sick and tired of these articles that make unrealistic demands on flight attendants . What if the shoe were on the other foot? Quite frankly, I’m sick of looking at passengers who have not a shred of social grace when they’re in public, albeit young, old, fat, skinny. I would prefer my First class cabin accommodate gracious well-mannered women every single day. Kinda tired of serving selfish pigs. Can we deny boarding to them based on our own personal bias? I’d love to judge other industries’ workers based on the same shallow criteria.

  19. Synd says:
    July 10, 2017 at 7:11 pm
    I am sorry Gary but he has a point, and after the attack video Delta (also cry and pity poor american carriers) published recently, I think its fair game. My last american flight a couple years ago, on UA in C, the flight attendant looked old enough to be my grandmother. I felt guilty having her bring food and drinks to me to the point that I refrained myself from asking for anything I wanted or needed outside of meal times;… I am sorry but this is not the way I should feel when I fly in Business or First and therefore I have refuse to take a US airline ever since when I have the possibility to chose another carrier.

    Now, if you look at what you just said from the opposite side, you would come out sexist and ageist. I am of the age that you would feel sorry for. I am retired, by choice. I walk 3.5 miles every day. And am probably in better shape than many of the FF of today.

  20. In order to make your point, you said that AA has better business class seats that Emirates and Etihad, you compared AA’s best seats to Emirates worst seats. I think it’s also true that AA has crappy business class seats, depending on the route and equipment. (You could probably say that for every airline.)

    Perhaps a better comparison might have been AA’s best seats vs Emirates best seats? (ie, A380 business class) vs Etihad’s best business class product?

    If your point is that Emirates and Etihad (and every other airline in the industry) has some less than state of the art business class cabins and seats, that is, of course, true.

    I think that without some clarification, it comes off as a misleading statement.

    Sort of like: “You should book United Airlines if you want to fly the new Polaris hard product.” Yes, that is a true statement, and you might even get it if your booking is for the year 2022, depending on the route and flight number and if United doesn’t switch things around in between the time you book and the time you fly. It’s misleading.

    Many people may not realize that these airlines with their great first class products may not have a state of the art lie flat product with aisle access at every seat on the routes/equipment they are looking at flying.


  21. @David (1) AA’s seats are better than the Emirates seats on the A380, while Emirates is lie flat direct aisle access on that aircraft it is a VERY dense cabin. (2) Emirates has more 777s than A380s (3) American’s seats across the board are better than both Emirates’ best seats AND the seats on their most common aircraft.

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