SYDNEY - He promised not to make controversial statements but it did not take long for Qatar Airways' outspoken chief executive to put his foot in his mouth.
When asked why his airline was run by a man, Mr Akbar Al Baker replied: "Of course it has to be led by a man, because it's a very challenging position."
The response, which drew rousing objections, was to a question posed on Tuesday (June 5) at the closing press conference of a two-day industry gathering of members of the International Air Transport Association (Iata) which also brought together airport and other partners.
A recurring theme during the panel discussions and presentations was a lack of women in top leadership roles in the aviation sector.
Mr Al Baker, who was part of a panel comprising Mr Alan Joyce, chief executive of Australia's Qantas and Iata's chief executive Alexandre de Juniac, started off, declaring in jest: "I will try to control (making) controversial statements."
Minutes later, when he made the remark in response to the question about women in top aviation jobs, Mr Joyce burst out laughing, saying he (Mr Al Baker) could not last even 10 minutes.
On a more serious note, Mr Joyce stressed that at Qantas, the key is to "look for the best talent out there".
Four in 10 of the airline's senior management are women, he said, including the heads of the international and frequent-flier loyalty businesses.
Despite his comment, Mr Al Baker also pointed out that at the Doha-based airline, about a third of the employees are women.
Qatar was also the first airline in the Middle Eastern region to hire women pilots.
Iata itself, which represents 290 airlines, has a board of governors comprising 31 airline chiefs with just two women among them.
Across the aviation industry, however, women make up only 3 per cent of chief executives, compared with more than 10 per cent in many other industries, observers said.
North America has the largest proportion of women in senior aviation roles and the Middle East the lowest.
Mr de Juniac said: "It's a longstanding issue. We have to push at all levels."
Mr Joyce added: "It will take a while but hopefully, one day, we will see a lot more women up here."