Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty
Cathy Free
July 13, 2017 09:07 PM

The CEO of Qatar Airlines, has apologized for calling U.S. flight attendants “grandmothers” during a speech in Ireland last week.

Akbar Al Baker bragged that the average age of Qatar Airways’ cabin crew is just 26, while passengers on U.S airlines are “always being served by grandmothers.”

“Competition among air carriers is robust. This is healthy, especially for our passengers, but our competition must remain respectful,” he wrote in a letter to the Association of Flight Attendants. “For the cabin crew serving aboard all air carriers, professionalism, skill and dedication are the qualities that matter. I was wrong to imply that other factors, like age, are relevant.”

“I should like to apologize unreservedly to those offended by my recent remarks which compared Qatar Airways cabin crew with cabin crew on U.S. carriers,” al Baker said in a statement Wednesday. “Cabin crew are the public face of all airlines, and I greatly respect their hard work and professionalism. They play a huge role in the safety and comfort of passengers, irrespective of their age or gender or familial status.”

“Flight attendants have been at the forefront of fighting to gain equal rights on the job,” Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “On our planes, we welcome humanity from every corner of the earth and we deliver passengers safely around the globe. Attacks against U.S. flight attendants by the leaders of Gulf airlines, in public and private, are a reflection of their countries’ documented disregard for human rights.”

Persian Gulf-based airlines have a long history of sexist policies and age discrimination, says Nelson, from firing female flight attendants who become pregnant to not hiring LGBT employees, upholding archaic weight and appearance standards and requiring female employees to get permission before marrying.

Qatar Airways is also receiving billions in subsidies from the Qatari government, she says, undermining any hope for healthy and robust competition with American carriers.

“These subsidies threaten my job and the jobs of my colleagues,” Nelson told al Baker in a letter this week. “It threatens our ability to provide for our families, to pay our mortgage and send our children to college.”

The comments from al Baker were “incredibly offensive — both sexist and ageist at the same time,” she says. “Qatar Airways thrives on misogyny and discrimination.”

Nelson’s outrage has been echoed by other leaders in the U.S. aviation industry.

“Would Mr. Akbar Al Baker question the age of the flight attendants who thwarted Richard Reid, the ‘shoe bomber,’ or those who evacuated the aircraft that landed on the Hudson River?” asks Association of Professional Flight Attendants National President, Bob Ross. “We are proud of our members who are not revered for their youth, but for their roles as safety professionals and first responders.”

“The comments by Akbar al Baker disgust me as a husband, they disgust me as a father of three daughters, and they disgust me as a pilot who relies on the skill and experience of our crew members — grandmothers or otherwise,” adds Dan Carey, a captain who is also president of the Allied Pilots Association.

“Qatar is not only seeking to choke out U.S. aviation, but also the 300,000 good jobs built through opportunity created on the principle of equality,” says Nelson. “If you prop up Qatar Airways, you are supporting sexism, racism and ageism. Period.”

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