BAHRAIN — The Bahrain Air Show feels much like its Dubai counterpart did when it started out some 30 years ago—informal and relaxed.
Unlike most major air shows where access to corporate chalets means running a gauntlet of granite-faced security men, it’s still possible—at least for journalists—to waft into a building at the Sakhir air base and have a sporting chance of sitting down with a senior executive, even a CEO.
The big news at the January 21-23 event was the fleet plans of local carrier Gulf Air. The airline announced its decision to convert its 2008-dated 16 787-8s on order to 787-9s. Gulf Air at present operates six A330s for its long-haul sectors to London, Manila and Bangkok. “The last thing we want to do is operate two wide-body types,” acting CEO Maher Salman Al Musallam said immediately before the show opened.
“Is the -8 the correct answer for Gulf Air? No. I need a high-density aircraft to go to Manila and Bangkok. The -8 is fine for flying to London, but not to Bangkok and Manila because of the number of passengers.” According to Gulf Air, the first ten Dreamliners will be delivered between 2018 and 2020, with a second batch pencilled in for deliveries between 2023 and 2024 — although the latter could be cancelled or remarketed if Gulf Air feels it no longer requires them.
The move to the 787 meant the cancellation of the outstanding order for six Airbus A330. Instead, Gulf Air picked up 17 A321neos and 12 A320neos, although ten of these were confirmations from an earlier deal. Nine of the A321neos will be standard versions, while eight of these will be Long-Range variants, capable of flying from Bahrain to Western Europe.
Intriguingly, Al Musallam raised doubts as to whether Gulf Air will proceed with plans to buy 10 Bombardier CSeries CS100. Talks with the Canadian manufacturer are due imminently, with a decision likely by around March. The airline is apparently tired of waiting for the delayed regional jet and Al Musallam questioned whether an airline of Gulf Air’s size—with an all-Airbus fleet of six A330-200s and 22 A320 family aircraft—should have a third distinct type in its inventory. The cancellation of the order would be a blow for the Canadian aircraft, for which orders remain stubbornly reluctant to materialize.
Elsewhere at the show Kuwait Airways’ new CEO, Abdullah Al Sharhan, insisted that the airline was emerging from two decades of non-investment. Its ancient fleet—it has just put five Airbus A300-600 and five A310-300s up for sale for which, remarkably, there have been several bidders—is being rapidly modernized, with new leased A320s and A330s steadily arriving.
One of the new A330s was in the static display. The symbolism behind its appearance was significant. “We want to show everyone that this is the new Kuwait Airways,” said Al Sharhan. It is understood that the standard of cabin services is also being improved. Al Sharhan wants to win back customers who have drifted away to Kuwaiti hybrid carrier Jazeera Airways or other Gulf carriers. At present, the national airline carries just 20% of passengers using Kuwait International Airport and is seeking to double that figure.
Kuwait Airways is also looking at its route structure. It has recently scrapped its long-running fifth-freedom service between New York JFK and London Heathrow. This followed an incident in which an Israeli passport-holder wishing to travel from New York was refused a ticket. The US Department of Transport said this broke U.S. law. The airline said that Kuwaiti law forbade it from carrying Israeli passport-holders or residents. The London-New York service has now been replaced by Kuwait-London and Kuwait-New York sectors.
Al Sharhan said it was now looking at its four other fifth-freedom routes (Rome-Paris, Frankfurt-Geneva, Bangkok-Manila and Kuala Lumpur-Jakarta), with replacement direct services being considered.
Saudi hybrid carrier flynas said it was talking to Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier to more than double its fleet to around 60 aircraft, with the US and European carriers the more likely candidates. CEO Paul Byrne said it remained difficult to make money, given Saudi government fare caps for domestic flights and subsidized fuel provided to national flag-carrier Saudia.
However, he could detect signs that Saudi regulator, the General Authority of Civil Aviation, was changing: “It’s no longer the political wing of Saudia, it’s becoming more of a regulator.” A more business-friendly attitude was apparent and he could detect a gradual loosening of regulation.
Competition in Saudi Arabia will increase when two new carriers, Saudi Arabia-based SaudiGulf Airlines and Qatar Airways subsidiary Al Maha Airways, eventually receive Air Operator’s Certificates. The AOC process has been protracted. Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker—normally never short of something to say—broke the habit of a lifetime by declining to comment on the matter.