Flying the Falcon

Gulf Air’s CEO Björn Näf told Airports International his airline is in the process of “becoming innovative again”. (Gulf Air)

In the latest in our series about the world’s top airlines, Tom Allett reports on how Gulf Air’s Premium Class offerings are about to get even better.

Gulf Air’s CEO Björn Näf told Airports International his airline is in the process of “becoming innovative again”. (Gulf Air)

Even during an economic downturn, when it comes to winning the favours of premium Class travellers no airline can afford to rest on its laurels for too long.  Despite the current global recession and reports from numerous airlines about reduced passenger numbers there are plenty of carriers who have already re-launched this year or are about to.  
This month we feature the premium services of Gulf Air, which has a long tradition of providing high-quality products and is currently in a transitional period that will soon lead to a complete ‘makeover’.
In March 2009, Gulf Air began services with the first of four 312-seat Boeing 777-300ERs acquired on lease from India’s Jet Airways.  The aircraft will replace the airline’s current A340-300s, some of which are expected to be sold.  In First Class eight individual suites with a seat pitch of 83 inches are provided in a 1-2-1 configuration.  In the Business Class cabin, 30 Sleeper Seats share the same configuration, but with a 49-inch pitch.
My flight to Bahrain took place on board the first of its Boeing 777-300s.
These aircraft have been repainted in the Gulf Air livery and represent something of a transition stage in the carrier’s redevelopment.
 

The Boeing 777s leased from Jet Airways have eight First Class cabins with a seat pitch of 83 inches. (Gulf Air)

First Class

The outbound leg was a daytime flight in the First Class cabin.  As I settled down for the journey, I realised that a great deal of attention had been lavished on ensuring passengers enjoyed the ultimate comfort.  It’s not only the seat, that converts into a fully-flat bed – so you can either sit back and travel in comfort or sleep – it’s the extra touches, like the built-in massage system, that make a huge difference.
The private sleep compartments are as good as any I have seen and those wishing to take a nap are offered pyjamas, changing room facilities and a suit pack in which to store your day clothes.  And when darkness falls, depriving you of the great views outside, an image of the night sky is projected onto the roof of the cabin – it’s a spectacular and memorable feature!
Another clever idea is that when the seat is upright the lower half of it becomes a second seat, so you could perhaps invite a colleague to join you for a business meeting.
One of the important bonuses of travelling First Class is the standard of the food on offer and Gulf Air certainly aims to impress.  The carrier has a team of over 100 Sky Chefs, some of whom have trained at top hotels around the world or provided similar levels of service with other airlines.  They deliver a high-altitude fine dining experience in a ‘restaurant’ that boasts views from the window that could almost distract you from what’s on the plate.
Once you’ve had a chance to browse the menu, the Sky Chef – Craig Austin on this occasion – comes to explain the options available you and discuss how you would like your choice to be served.  A pleasing selection of international dishes is available and I’m told that the Arabic mezze selection is particularly popular.
Your choice is then prepared for you personally and an accompanying drink is recommended from the Sky Cellar.  It’s just an apple juice for me – after all I am working…
After your entrée, you can indulge in a fresh cheese platter or a delicious dessert.
Despite the fact that the chefs don’t have the kitchen facilities that a hotel could offer, they are still able to exercise their individual flair.  Craig tells me that frequent First Class flyers will be able to tell the difference between dishes prepared by the various chefs.
Looking back, the only downside of the Bahrain flight is that with a block time of around seven hours, you are unable to take full advantage of what is on offer…decisions, decisions!
 

There are 30 Sleeper Seats with a pitch of 49 inches in the 777s’ Business Class cabin. (Gulf Air)

Business Class

After a short stay in Bahrain I returned to London on an overnight flight in the Business Class cabin.  Here the 30 sleeper seats have a 63-inch pitch and 24-inch bed width, complemented by cotton-back blankets and generous storage space.
A Herringbow seating arrangement with individual dividing screens provides a significant degree of privacy and a cocoon seat head, noise-cancelling headphones, laptop power points and in-seat phones give the traveller access to cutting-edge technology if they want it, or a comfortable environment should they prefer a rest.  It had been a very long working day so I took the opportunity to get some sleep.
 
CEO’s View
During my visit to Bahrain I was able to speak to Gulf Air’s CEO Björn Näf about the redesign process.  With regards to the Boeing 777s, he said: “The aircraft have a Gulf Air livery, a Gulf Air cockpit crew, a mixture of Jet Airways’ and our own cabin crew, our own food and beverage and Jet’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) system.
“We are working towards dry-leasing these aircraft, which will mean bringing in our own IFE in the near future.
The aircraft’s First Class cabin has a representation of the night sky projected onto its roof during the hours of darkness.

“We are in the process of creating a new corporate identity, which means introducing a new colour scheme and aircraft interior.  While the standard of the existing seats is in line with our future product, there will be changes to the look and feel of the cabin, giving them a more Arabic, more Bahraini style.”
He continued: “The airline is now 100% Bahraini-owned and the Board of Directors, the owner and our own staff came together to identify what is driving the industry right now.  Passenger feedback helped to determine what needed changing of course, and we gave James Park Associates the task of putting our ideas together and turning them into the new identity as part of our need to make Gulf Air innovative again.”
Gulf Air’s impressive centralized Premium check-in area at Bahrain.

Asked whether the airline’s new look would be more visible in the air or on the ground Mr Näf replied: “It should be equally noticeable at all the major customer ‘touch points’ – on the web site, via the call centre, in the lounge and on the aircraft.”
The process of upgrading the world’s airline cabins is never ending and despite the current economic downturn the fight to win the hearts and minds of Premium Class travellers is too important to be put off until another time.  There are still plenty of airlines who have either already introduced a new cabin, or are about to.
Arabian style seating at Bahrain. (All - Gulf Air)

In Gulf Air’s case Mr Näf explained that: “For us it all started in Business Class.  We recognised that we needed to do something in there and the process of designing and putting a new seat in the aircraft takes about two years.”
Mr Näf wouldn’t be drawn on the airline’s timetable for completing its revamp and simply said: “we are working hard on the timeline right now.”
 
Small is Beautiful
I asked Mr Näf how the airline could cope with having giant competitors like Emirates on its ‘doorstep’ and he explained that: “We want to position the airline so that is selling time and we can do this at Bahrain.  It’s a small airport and very convenient for travellers.  Using the London flight as an example, the distance that the individual passenger has to travel from check-in, through Customs to their gate, is only around 50 metres.
(KEY-Tom Allett)

“This isn’t Dubai where it takes you around three hours to get to the airport and then another two hours making your way through the check-in process and down to the departure gate.  Here the current check-in time is 40 minutes and we want to reduce this to deliver check-in within ten minutes and ‘check-out’ in 15 minutes for our premium passengers.”
“Offering ten-minute check-in on our Bahrain to London, Paris and Frankfurt flights is within our reach.”  However, the airline’s chief added that the airport’s baggage system needed to be improved before it can make significant progress on transfer times.
“Yes competition is hard,” said Mr Näf adding, “but it keeps us on our toes.  There is a lot of underdeveloped infrastructure here, we don’t have the major highways or rail links yet but they will come.  It’s a booming market and a lot of money is being spent.  We have a huge catchment area of around 7 million passengers here and the other carriers don’t have that.  If we manage to deliver on our promises of being punctual, reliable and friendly, and then sell time on top of those plus points we can become the airline of choice.
“We don’t need the biggest fleet and we don’t need the biggest network to hit our targets.  We are a niche carrier, but we can still make money and have a profitable business which will help to further develop the Bahraini economy.”
In what may be a first for the CEO of a Gulf region airline, Mr Näf pointed to his airline’s links with Queens Park Rangers (QPR) – a football team playing in the second tier of the English league – to underline the carrier’s ambitions.  Despite its modest current status on the football pitch, the team was recently purchased by three of the world’s richest men; initially the two Formula One racing tycoons Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, who were subsequently joined by billionaire Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal.  The men aim to take QPR to into the English Premier League within two years and that’s where the tie in with Gulf Air becomes appropriate.
Mr Näf explained that: “the ambitious project that they have undertaken reflects Gulf Air’s plans.  QPR wants to be one of the world’s best and have a global brand – and so do we.  The team’s owners are very powerful and Mr Mittal is a big player in the Indian market and can open doors for us.”

The airline’s Sky Chefs are a key part of its First Class service. (Gulf Air)

What’s Next?
There is more to come from this famous carrier later this year.  James Park, founder of James Park Associates (JPA), design consultancy, says: “Gulf Air’s move from Heathrow’s Terminal 3 to Terminal 4 provides a great opportunity for JPA to work with the airline to create a passenger environment which truly reflects the value the carrier places on its customers and the hospitality for which the Kingdom of Bahrain is famed.
“The lounge will feature a glass curtain wall overlooking the southern runway, sumptuous seating and luxurious dining facilities.  Huge attention to detail will be paid to the materials we use and the completed lounge will utilise abstracted Arabic motifs, within a sleek, modern, relaxing and welcoming environment.”