Steve Jones’ Say

Akbar Al Baker rarely disappoints. Not for reporters anyway.

His appearances are invariably entertaining, his remarks eminently quotable. I’ve yet to meet a journalist who doesn’t look forward to his press conferences, and the stories they frequently deliver.

I also regard Al Baker as media savvy. Unlike many CEOs, the boss of Qatar Airways knows what makes journalists tick. He is aware of what they want; strong opinions, controversy, the impromptu release of “under wraps” news that leaves his PR team exasperated but which generates blanket media coverage.

I remember covering a press conference at the Arabian Travel Market some years back, when Al Baker declared he would not talk about alliances. Within minutes, the most gentle of probings had him revealing all about the airline’s likely future plans. He couldn’t help himself.

So it was at the annual IATA gathering in Sydney. Moments after assuming the role of IATA board chairman, Al Baker responded to a question about equality in the aviation workplace by suggesting that only a man could do his job “because it is a very challenging position”.

Oh dear. Cue almighty groans and plenty of Al Baker bashing, understandably so.

Al Baker later claimed his remark was made in jest.

Only he knows if it really was an ill-conceived “joke” or genuine sentiment. I suspect the former, if only because no one in his position, and with his presumed intelligence, can surely believe a woman is incapable of holding down such a role. To suggest otherwise is, indeed, laughable.

What reaction did Al Baker expect, other than derision? Journalists and the rest of the IATA summit to laugh along? We can assume he did, which demonstrates surprising naivety and severe misjudgment.

He compounded his failings by blaming the media, as so many do, for blowing it out of proportion.

Critically, whether his comment was a joke or not is largely irrelevant. For starters, a comment or behaviour is defined by how it’s received. In this case, not very well.

Secondly, what such a “lighthearted” throwaway remark illustrates — if that is what it was — is that gender equality, particularly in senior positions, is still not taken all that seriously. To relegate the issue to flippancy is disrespectful and misunderstands the immense frustration felt by many women.

Meanwhile, frustration is a common emotion felt in Australian cruising, as it struggles to develop ports to attract larger ships.

Figures just released show 1.34 million Australians took an ocean cruise in 2017, up 4.4%, a healthy increase but way down on the growth in 2016 of 21%.

CLIA suggested infrastructure constraints were impacting growth and will continue to do so unless there is sufficient political will to support the sector. That may be so, but only to a point.

Targets of two million cruisers by 2020 was always optimistic, and not just because of capacity issues. With market penetration approaching 6%, far higher than other major markets which hover around 4%, you have to wonder if cruising is starting to plateau.