KUWAIT — Over the past decade or so, Kuwait Airways has been something of a conundrum. How can the national carrier from a nation that has the sixth-highest GDP per capita in the world be so poor?
Especially in a region that has become a byword for upmarket, high-quality airlines whose levels of service make most western airlines look distinctly second-rate.
Until about three years ago, its fleet was unbelievably antiquated – Airbus A310s, anyone? A complete re-fleeting is under way. So, it was with considerable interest that I waited at Kuwait International Airport to board one of the carrier’s brand new Boeing 777-300ERs, to see how – or if – Kuwait Airways had upped its game.
The day had started well. Having been warned that the airport was operating at twice its design capacity and was routinely packed, it was almost eerily quiet when I arrived at 0715. I’d also been cautioned that security personnel were fond of emptying the contents of your carry-on case, but I breezed through the deserted fast-track screening area for premium cabin passengers with no problem.
My flight was KU101 to London Heathrow. The airline regards Kuwait-London as its flagship route, so it was one of the first to have the new 777s replacing the old generation of equipment.
Standing at Gate 22 was 9K-AOC Failaka, bearing the most obvious indication of the company’s modernization process, the first major revamp of its color scheme since the 1970s. For decades, the fleet has worn slight variations and tweaks of its traditional medium-blue cheat line and tail panel, with its stylized bird emblem on the fin.
Catching up with modern practice, the fuselage is now all-white, with large ‘Kuwait’ titles in English on the forward fuselage and repeated in Arabic. The most striking change, however, is at the rear of the aircraft, where the stylized bird has been hugely increased in size, with its wing extending the full height of the tailfin and its body sweeping forward on to the aft fuselage.
Embarking through the forward door, I turned right into first class, which takes the form of eight ‘suites’, or enclosed individual seats. The suites have no ceilings, but side walls tall enough to give a degree of privacy. These are arranged in a 1-2-1 formation; the middle pair has a rising partition if you are not traveling with a companion and want some solitude. They have an 84-inch pitch.
The business-class cabin directly behind this is set out in a 2-2-2 configuration with B/E Aerospace’s ‘Diamond’ design seats in a sober but attractive dark blue fabric. These have a 62-inch pitch and are lie-flat models.
Business class is split in two, with two rows of seats ahead of a galley and toilets and a further four rows aft of this, giving a total of 36 seats. The cabin is decked out in dark blue seat cushions and off-white shells.
Heading further aft, there are 290 more seats, 54 in a premium economy layout of nine rows in 3-3-3 configuration at 35-inch pitch, with the remainder at 32 inches. A welcome fact is that, unlike most 777 operators, Kuwait Airways has resisted the temptation to cram in 10-abreast seating, staying with a nine-abreast configuration.
Back in business class, I settled into seat 6A. As is frequently the case on the London sector, the cabin was fully occupied – the UK capital is a popular destination for both business travelers and vacationers. There is only a vestigial partition between the pairs of seats. This is mildly annoying to those of us who are essentially anti-social on flights and prefer some solitude.
The 2-2-2 layout also means that window seat passengers have to maneuver around your aisle seat neighbor. There is a reasonable amount of space in which to do so, but you still have to make your excuses as you leave and enter.
Almost as soon as I was seated, there came an offer of various fruit juices – both Kuwait and its national carrier have a ‘no alcohol’ policy – and a packet of upmarket mixed nuts. This was followed a few minutes later with the offer of either hot or cold towels. One can imagine that the latter option is popular over the summer months when temperatures in the emirate regularly reach 120F or above.
Almost immediately after the towels were retrieved came one of the small but attractive aspects of traveling up front on many Middle Eastern airlines, the traditional Arabic welcome offering of a single plump date and a small, handleless cup of cardamom coffee. The latter is something of an acquired taste, but I rather like it.
Examining the seat and its surrounds, the cushions were firm enough to give decent support for a long-haul flight and were certainly comfortable. I felt the seat was slightly lacking in cubby holes for storage; there were two very slim slots that would be suitable for magazines or a slim paperback below the right-hand armrest. The gap between the left-hand armrest and the cabin sidewall had a notice specifically warning that it should not be used for storing articles.
Behind my left shoulder was a roughly triangular shelf with a recess for a bottle of mineral water and a plug for the headphones supplied in a mock-fabric bag, plus a USB connection slot. There was also a tiny circular light that seemed to be inoperative unless I was being more than my usually technically-challenged self and simply didn’t find the appropriate ‘on’ switch.
The shelf was useful for stowing the (good-quality) noise-cancelling headsets supplied, but to plug them in required the performance of a rather awkward twisting maneuver; it’s actually easier to stand up for a moment and turn round to face the socket so you can achieve a better angle to plug in a device.
The headphone plug had a combination of three small modules to fit into depressions on the socket plus three magnets that align with three corresponding magnets on the socket. This proved rather fiddly to fit but, once achieved, formed a very firm connection.
We pushed back at 0950, some 15 minutes behind schedule (no reason for this was given over the PA, at least not in English). During our short taxi out to the runway, we passed an Iran Air A320 on its take-off roll, heading for Isfahan, just a short hop across the Gulf.
Our takeoff roll commenced at 1005, passing a USAF C-5 Galaxy, a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-150T Polaris tanker and a Royal Netherlands Air Force DC-10-30, all parked discreetly out of sight of the main terminal. Parked on the other side of the terminal as we swept past was one of the Kuwait Air Force’s two Boeing C-17 Globemaster strategic transports with its distinctive white top-surfaces
Almost immediately after take-off, we were out over the light blue waters of the Gulf, so shallow in places that the sandy seabed was easily visible.
We wheeled left, almost due north into Iran and the country’s rugged Zagros mountains before turning northwest, cutting the corner of the border into Iraq before settling on to a course that would take us over Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Belgium before heading over the English Channel and descending into London. Our initial cruise would be at FL320, although over the course of the six hour 15-minute flight, we gradually drifted up to FL380.
All that was still to come, however.
Forty-five minutes after take-off, a turquoise green linen napkin was laid over our tables and light refreshments were served. This was just before 1100, that awkward time that is too late for breakfast and too early for lunch.
We were served a small plate with a couple of tiny, lightly toasted sandwiches with chicken breast and cream cheese, a single kibbeh, or beef croquette, a couple of miniature biscuits and a fruit skewer, together with a choice of tea or coffee.
Shortly afterward, the cabin crew made the now increasingly common request for passengers to lower their window blinds. This undoubtedly improves the viewing experience of the seatback screens, but I personally feel it changes the ‘feel’ of the cabin for the worse. Many people settled down for a nap.
Those that chose to watch the IFE had a choice of around 100 films, a reasonable selection of mainly US, Indian and Arabic TV shows, plus an informative airshow of the aircraft’s progress. In all, the choice was decent, if not up to the standards of the seemingly limitless video libraries on board some other Gulf carriers.
I had to buckle down to some work, but I firstly paused to investigate the contents of the amenity kit distributed shortly after take-off.
Produced by the US Aigner cosmetics and accessories brand, it was packed into a brown nylon fabric pouch and included the usual flight socks and eye mask, plus deodorant, refreshing tissue, lip balm, body lotion, folding hairbrush, square mirror, toothbrush kit, shoehorn and earplugs.
The new 777-300ERs have wi-fi and GSM facilities fitted, although passengers have to pay to use them – not an offer that I took up.
About four hours into the flight, lunch was served. Out came the turquoise tablecloths and the cabin crew took drinks orders – again purely of the ‘soft’ variety. There was then a pause before they came round again with the first course, hors d’oeuvres in the form of smoked turkey on a circle of lightly toasted bread, smoked salmon with dill and capers on pumpernickel and hummus on a radicchio leaf.
This was attractively served and surprisingly substantial for an appetizer, especially when paired with a quinoa salad marinated with olive oil, sweet chili sauce and lemon juice served with tomato and cucumber slices. I have never been a big fan of the South American grain and this experience did little to change my opinion, but I accept that’s a purely personal matter.
The main course was a choice between fish, chicken or lamb. I opted for the first of those and was served a dish comprising two skewers of chunky salmon, prawns, and scallops dressed with a tarragon curry sauce, together with a miniature stuffed marrow, carrots and crispy fried potato balls.
Curry is a tricky customer; no airline wants to scorch its passengers’ taste buds, but too many opt for the mildest possible option to play it safe and end up with a hopelessly bland concoction. The dish on this occasion was pitched pretty close to ideal, with enough curry flavor to the sauce to make it distinctive, but not so much as to overwhelm the flavor of the seafood.
Another pause after the entrees were cleared away and we were asked for our choice of dessert. The ‘Brittany butter cake with raspberry’ I suspected would be little more than a variation on a sponge cake, the cheese plate contained rather dull, processed varieties found in any supermarket and fresh fruit seemed a little boring. I, therefore, opted for the strawberry ice cream – hardly haute cuisine, but what arrived on my table was a decent commercial product, containing substantial chunks of the fruit.
Coffee ended the meal, by which time announcements were being made about our impending arrival. Around 45 minutes later, after the almost inevitable 10 minutes spent in one of Heathrow’s stacks as traffic built up, we made a commendably smooth touchdown in London at just after 1330 local time, having made up our 15-minute late departure.
Early afternoon is obviously a good time to arrive at the notoriously busy London hub as, for the first time in years that I can recall, the immigration hall was devoid of arriving passengers and I was able to go straight to one of the passport e-gates and be on my way to the exit within 30 seconds.
My overall impression of the flight was pretty favourable. The cabin crew, while polite and helpful, seemed slightly less engaged than those on some of the other Gulf carriers. However, Kuwait Airways has said that it plans to spend a considerable sum on training this financial year, so this aspect of in-flight service may well be tackled.
After its travails over the past 25 years, one wishes the airline well.
Kuwait Airways has a long, honorable history, having been founded back in 1954 and one of the leaders in bringing aircraft such as the Boeing 707 to the Gulf.
Things started to go badly wrong when several of its aircraft were destroyed by the Iraqi invasion of the tiny emirate in 1990; many that survived were flown out to Iraq on the orders of Saddam Hussein as war booty.
Although a re-fleeting program was put in place after the allied coalition forces chased the Iraqi forces out in 1991, a combination of factors – notably a stuttering on-off-on again privatization process in recent years designed to make the state-owned carrier more efficient – led to stasis in the decision-making process.
The fleet – a mixture of increasingly elderly Airbus A300-600s, A310-300s, A320-200s and A340-300s, with a couple of Boeing 777-200ERs thrown in – fell increasingly far behind modern standards, with scruffy, worn cabins. And, as the company’s ‘hard product’ languished, so did its inflight ‘soft product’, with reports on airline rating sites regularly lambasting indifferent service standards.
New management has pledged to improve matters radically with a five-year transformation plan that got underway in 2016. Part of that plan involves a total re-fleeting, with the entire former fleet due to be out of service by the middle of this year.
They are being replaced in two stages, with seven new A320ceo and five A330s plus 10 777-300ERs providing a ‘bridge’ to a new generation of aircraft – 10 A350-900s and 15 A320neo – arriving from the end of this decade onwards.