Published in January 2016 issue

Once upon a time, Gulf Air (GF) was a bright star among the airlines of the world; however, it has since quietly slipped to second tier, behind the new global players from the Persian Gulf (Airways, October 2015).

By Andreas Rohde

Founded back in 1950 under the name of Gulf Aviation, Gulf Air is the oldest commercial airline from the Gulf region. In its heyday, it dominated the traffic flow between Europe and the Gulf States and enjoyed a reputation comparable to that of Emirates (EK) today. Its name stood for comfortable travel, innovation, and easy connections to the Middle East and beyond.

Since 1974, Gulf Air was jointly owned by Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar, but maintained its headquarters at Manama Airport (BAH) in Bahrain. Then, the establishment of Emirates Airlines in the mid-1980s coincided with the neighboring emirates’ demand for their own non-stop flight-connections to the world. This all led to an exodus of shareholders from the joint operation and to the rise of new and stronger competitors, which, under the auspices of the local rulers’ favor and ambition, expanded rapidly.

Built from scratch, these companies soon outpaced Gulf Air. They boasted brandnew aircraft, novel concepts of service, standard-setting transit terminals, and, last but not least, new cosmopolitan brand images, including the allure of their newly glimmering home cities. Gulf Air couldn’t withstand such competition and lost market share on its European routes. Over the last decade, Gulf Air`s service to Frankfurt (FRA) was downsized from its initial Airbus A340-300 service to a smaller A330-200, and, finally, to the smallest member of its fleet, the A320-200.

Having last traveled Gulf Air on this route almost 10 years ago (on the A340), a recent trip to Dubai provided me with the chance to check out whether the airline has been able to improve its standards over my previous experience.

PRICING ADVANTAGE

Obviously, Gulf Air has not been able to ameliorate its yield situation on this service, as its fares are regularly among the cheapest on this route. The ticket from FRA to Dubai (DXB) via BAH was finally booked through our company office at a bargain fare of €196 (US$266).

To complete check-in, I chose to use the airline’s website, which was available from 24 hours to 90 minutes before departure. At FRA’ terminal 2D, check-in was only handled at two counters—one each for Economy and Falcon Gold First Class. Nevertheless, I was able to drop off my bags without having to wait, and the agent kindly offered to change my seat so that I could have a complete row for myself.

With only 30 passengers on this flight, boarding started 15 minutes after the published boarding time. Unlike its competitors from the Gulf region, Gulf Air did not use a gate position, so we took a five-minute bus ride to a remote parking stand.

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AN UNUSUAL A320 CONFIGURATION

Out of its 16-strong Airbus A320 fleet, Gulf Air flies five dedicated A320-200 long-range aircraft (distinguishable by the deactivated forward over-wing emergency exits, allowed due to their lower seating capacity). My plane had 14 flat-bed seats in the Falcon Gold cabin, with 78-inch seat-pitch, and 96 economy ones, with a pitch ranging between 33 to 34 inches. Inside, the cabin was spotless and appeared almost like that of a new aircraft. The seats were in various pastel shades of grey and blue with the seatbacks in beige, the same color as the window frames, giving a good initial impression of a well-designed cabin with a touch of local colors from a desert country. Although the recline of the seats was limited, the generous pitch offered a much appreciated chance to stretch my legs. The seats featured adjustable headrests, and each came with a pillow and a coat hanger on the seatback.

Although most passengers prefer larger aircraft over narrow-body types, I enjoyed the less crowded atmosphere, both on board and during the boarding process.

Before departure, Flight Attendants (FA) distributed headphones and amenity kits. Once the doors were closed, pushback from the parking stand commenced exactly at the scheduled departure time, followed by a 10-minute taxi to Frankfurt’s runway 18, during which, the crew offered a selection of newspapers.


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IN-FLIGHT SERVICE

About 30 minutes after becoming airborne, the crew handed out blankets and started the cabin service with drinks, but without any snacks. Approximately one hour into the flight, we were offered a meal service, with a choice of either chicken with rice, or beef with mashed potatoes. The latter option tasted good, but the recycled plastic cutlery, which appeared well used, was a drawback. The tray also contained a hot bread roll, pre-packed soft cheese and butter, corn salad, a piece of cheesecake and crackers. Drinks were offered along with the meal, as well as tea and coffee at a later stage.

Once the meal service was finished, a standard assortment of duty-free items was offered for sale.

During the rest time that followed, the cabin crew passed through the aisle with soft drinks three more times before landing.

The in-flight entertainment system (IFE) featured seatback touch-screen monitors, and a hand-held control unit in the armrest was also provided. The system’s entertainment database was far less extensive than those of the airline’s Gulf competitors, but sufficient for the duration of the flight, with enough choices for every preference. Additional reading material was provided in the form of Gulf Air’s Gulf Traveller in-flight magazine.

Upon descent, FAs collected the blankets and headphones, which essentially ended the entertainment program some 30 minutes before arrival. Unfortunately, the cabin light was not dimmed for the night landing and remained fully lit, which not only spoiled the view over Manama, but was actually a safety issue because, in case of an emergency, our eyes would not have been able to adapt to the dark surroundings quickly enough.

At Bahrain, flight GF016 was again assigned to a remote parking stand, where the aircraft parked 11 minutes behind schedule, after a block-time of five hours and 56 minutes.

We entered the terminal through the bus arrival gate, which looked like a warehouse side-entry rather than a gate welcoming valued customers. One floor up, we had to pass through an overcrowded security checkpoint before ascending another level to the departure concourse.

Since my last trip through Bahrain, the dining options have improved, as has the cleanliness of the washrooms. However, the airport is no match for its rivals in Dubai, Qatar, or Abu Dhabi.

When we arrived at the departure gate for our connecting flight to DXB, boarding was already in progress. Flight GF512 was operated by a standard A320-200 with four First Class rows, totaling 16 reclining seats installed at a 45-inch pitch, and 120 Economy seats at 32 inches. While seating comfort was good, the difference in seat pitch from the previous aircraft was definitely noticeable. Although this fully booked flight was boarded well on time, a 12-minute delay ensued because of late-connecting baggage.

With a scheduled air time of only one hour, the cabin service consisted of a choice of chicken or vegetarian sandwiches, along with orange juice or water. Due to heavy inbound traffic at DXB, we spent 15 extra minutes circling over the Persian Gulf before arriving at Terminal 1, 28 minutes behind schedule.

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ARRIVAL INCONVENIENCES

In contrast to EK, most foreign air carriers at DXB are assigned the older and far less attractive immigration and baggage-delivery facilities. With several simultaneous widebody arrivals, the walk to the immigration hall took 15 minutes through crowded and seemingly endless corridors with inoperable people conveyers. Waiting time at immigration was an annoying 35 minutes.

At least, my suitcase was waiting for me on the baggage carrousel, but the total terminal transit time from on-block was of exactly one hour.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

Although not as fancy as its competitors’ new wide-body flagships, Gulf Air’s Airbus A320 provided a comfortable atmosphere for relaxed travel in good seating comfort, with seat-pitch on the long-range sector being superior to the competition’s Economy cabins. Cabin service was good, but was missing the final touches, such as menu cards, refreshment towels, or snacks with the drinks.

Given the fare, however, this flight provided excellent value for money.