After a career spent at Croatia Airlines, where he started in 1992 as Sales Manager at the head office in Zagreb and climbed the ladder to the point of being appointed President and CEO in September 2012, Kresimir Kucko was called to lead Gulf Air in November 2017.

His arrival in Bahrain was followed by the launch of a five-year program aimed at relaunching the image of the carrier after years of struggle. Airways met Mr Kucko at the airline’s headquarter in Manama for an exclusive interview.

Airways: Mr Kucko, Gulf Air has never been an example, if we consider profitability. How are you going to reshape it in such a competitive environment for commercial aviation like the Persian Gulf?

K: “In 2018 we launched the hashtag #yearofchange to symbolize the new course. For the first time, the airline publicly revealed its strategy and goals, pointing at sustainable growth and costs control. Talking of profitability, you have to remember our troubled history and the change of scenario.

“For decades, up to 2002, we have been the airline serving four different Countries, while after 2009 in the same four Countries you have five different carriers competing for one against the others, two of which are among the largest airlines in the world.”

“Also, you have to consider the importance of Gulf Air in representing Bahrain around the world and its vital role of connecting it to as many Countries as possible. And Bahraini Nationals are conscious of the importance of the airline, also in point of carrier opportunities: 65% of pilots are Bahraini, plus 100% of our male cabin crews and 90% of all those employed at our headquarter. All that said, the balance sheets have been improving consistently during the last few years”.

Airways: After more than one year as CEO at Gulf Air, can you draw us a picture of commercial aviation in the Gulf as you see it today?

K: “I consider this as an exciting period in which other players, including us, are growing in point of fleet, network and airport infrastructure”.

Airways: Can you highlight the key points of the five-year plan that was launched last year?

K: “We introduced a new livery, new cabin crew uniforms and new airplanes: the 787-9 on the long range and the A320neo on the short to medium range. Six new destinations were added to the network in 2018 and six to eight more will follow this year. By 2023 we’ll have an entirely new fleet, including the A321neos and -LR that will start arriving in 2020”.

Airways: That means the A330s will go?

K: “Yes, they will be gone in a couple of years”.

Airways: What about the A321LR, an aircraft that is considered a game changer for its size and long range performance?

K: “We are going to receive nine -LRs out of an order for 17 A321neos. We will use them to expand our European and Asian network, to destinations where the traffic doesn’t necessitate a widebody.”

“They will replicate on a minor scale the level of comfort that we offer on our flagship 787s, with lie-flat seats in business class, a generous pitch in economy and on-demand inflight entertainment screens at every seat. The first destination to receive the aircraft will be most probably the Italian city of Milan in 2020”.

Airways: For quite a long period, after the withdrawal of the 767 fleets, Gulf Air has operated exclusively Airbus aeroplanes. What made you turn to Boeing again?

K: “Well, the 787 is the perfect machine for us, in point of state-of-the-art interiors, passenger comfort and cargo capacity, which is much superior to our A330. Before making the order for the Dreamliners, back in 2016, the A350 was evaluated too. But, even in its small variant, the -900, it was considered too large an airplane for our neccessities”.

Airways: Why you didn’t install a premium economy cabin on the 787s?

K: “Because our long-range-network is made by six to seven hours-long flights. On such distances, there is not a market for that class. For now we are committed to offer the best economy and the best business, but if we should start ultra-long flights, like for instance to the USA, we might consider introducing a third cabin on part of our fleet. Because on a 14 hours-long trip people would certainly consider paying a little more to access premium economy and travel with more comfort”.

Airways: That means you are planning a non-stop service to the USA…

K: “That is a thing we are working at. We certainly would like to go back to a market that we served in the past for quite a long period. And in that case the destination would be New York, but not before a couple of years from now”.

Airways: What about a return to Australia, too?

K: “We are not considering Australia in our five year plan however we just signed a code share expansion with Thai Airways to allow passengers to travel on Gulf Air to Bangkok and then from there to Melbourne on Thai Airways”.

Airways: Arriving at Bahrain International airport it’s easy to notice how the majority of passengers connect to other destinations…

K: “I personally retain Bahrain as a hub, all considering, although traffic varies with the seasons: during the winter we have 60% connecting and 40% point to point, while in the summer it’s 50-50 because locals travel much more. In January we started a “stopover program” in order to keep some of the traffic here and increase touristic flow to Bahrain”.

Airways: Which are the main trajectories of this connecting traffic?

K: “I would say London-Manila, London-Bangkok and more in general Bangkok to Europe. It’s not a coincidence if we started operating our 787s to London and Bangkok, shortly followed by Casablanca in Maroc”.

Airways: Which type of traffic do you have?

K: “We have more ‘family and friends’ and leisure during the summer, while in the winter it is more business-related”.

Airways: In a hub-and-spoke system, regional jets usually play an important role in feeding traffic. You had a small fleet of ERJs but you withdrew them from service…

K: “ERJs are great airplanes, but not in this part of the world where people use to travel with plenty of luggage. Plus, their cargo capacity is extremely limited”.

Airways: How important will be the new terminal in developing BAH as an alternative hub to Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi?

K: “Well, the existing terminal was originally designed for seven million passengers per year and in 2017 we approached the nine million mark. Notwithstanding, it rarely suffers from congestion. But the new building will be strategic for an airline like ours, that controls 60% of traffic at BAH, to offer a much higher standard of comfort and amenities to our passengers, in line with what they find onboard our aeroplanes. Fr example, our lounge will be two times and a half larger than it is now”.

Airways: Are you considering joining an international alliance as part of your five-year plan?

K: “Coming from Croatia Airlines, I have more than five years of experience in the subject. Alliances allow great opportunities for promotion in certain markets, plus the joint approach reduces costs. It’s an argument that we are currently discussing with the board”.

It remains clear overall that Gulf Air’s strategy is set in stone over the next five years.

With Kucko not dismissing many things, it will be interesting to see what else he decides to open up for the airline as his tenure continues at the airline.