As a former British Protectorate (from 1916 until 1971), for Bahrain-based Gulf Air (GF), London has always been the flagship destination.
Today, GF has two daily flights to/from London Heathrow (LHR): one leaving Bahrain International Airport (BAH) in the morning to be back from LHR in the late evening, the other leaving BAH in the wee hours to be back from the British Capital the next morning.
For decades the carrier has flown out of LHR’s Terminal 3, but following the inauguration of Terminal 5 and after British Airways moving there in 2009, its new base became Terminal 4 where all the Skyteam plus many of the non-aligned carriers are located.
The building is the only one situated outside LHR’s Central Terminal Area (CTA), on the south side of the runways and beside the Cargo Center. It was inaugurated on April 1, 1986, by the Prince and Princess of Wales and for 23 years it operated as British Airways’ base for long-haul operations.
After the opening of Terminal 5, it underwent a £200mln ($254mln) renovation which terminated in 2014 and included the addition of an eastern pier to increase gates and boarding fingers. Today it covers a floor area of 1,135,390sqf (105,481sqm) and hosts 45 airlines.
Despite recent renovation, T4 is not exactly what you would call a nice place where to start a journey.
For sure, it penalizes carriers like Qatar Airways (the only Oneworld member together with Malaysia Airlines to use it), Etihad Airways and Gulf Air, which offer to their passengers a high-level inflight service in every class, that is not matched by what they experience on the ground.
When I arrived at T4 three hours before the 21.50 scheduled departure time (STD) of flight GF006, the check-in area was total chaos, with about a dozen long-haul widebodies scheduled to depart in the next two to three hours and thousands of passengers filling the confined spaces of the landside departure area. The noise and neon lights didn’t add to the comfort.
I finally found Gulf Air’s check-in, situated in the “D” area. The Bahraini carrier recently embarked in a five-year renovation plan whose highlight is the arrival in the fleet of 16 brand-new 787-9s fitted with an updated Falcon Gold Business class, that I was lucky enough to test and enjoy while flying to BAH in order to interview the airline’s new CEO Kresimir Kucko at GF’s headquarters in Manama.
With two out of seven desks dedicated to Falcon Gold passengers, the operation required a couple of minutes.
Together with the boarding pass, the agent handed me two more tickets: one for the Fast Track at security plus the invitation to the Falcon Gold Lounge, situated after controls beside gate 6.
Confirming the inadequacy of T4 for contemporary flows of traffic, the Fast Track was
This, together with the obsession of British airport personnel for any kind of liquid containers (even the smallest ones) in the bags, meant security required some thirty minutes before I could proceed to the departure area.
Airside, there are six premium lounges: Malaysia Airlines (MH), Qatar Airways (QR), Gulf Air, Etihad Airways (EY) and El Al (LY) have their own, while premium Plaza Lounge is open to everybody upon paying an entrance fee.
Measuring 6.500sqf (604sqm), Falcon Gold Lounge is huge, considering that it hosts the airlines’s two daily flights’ premium passengers plus those of a few other carriers only.
That evening, I counted no more than thirty of us waiting for their flight, including some Oman Air passengers heading to Muscat. The lounge was luxurious, with its huge, leather covered sofas and armchairs, its pretty dining area offering hot and cold food and a full bar with alcoholics and a barista preparing cocktails and Arab coffee on request.
A couple of small, enclosed sitting rooms granted enhanced privacy, while showers and a prayer room completed the treat.
For the aviation geek, vintage photos of the airline in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties adorned the walls here and there, but the undisputable “plus” was the window running all along the northern side of the lounge, offering unobstructed views of T4 apron, southern runway (09R/27L) and T2.
As I asked for the possibility to refreshen, one of the attendants opened to me one of the shower rooms and came with towels, soap and shampoo.
After that, I had an aperitive degusting some delicious Middle-Eastern “Mezze” including hummus and vine leaves filled with rice accompanied by a glass of chilled Rodier Champagne.
Boarding was called 40 minutes before STD and I proceeded to gate 8 where Boeing 787-9 A9C-FD, delivered to the carrier just three weeks before, was waiting.
The Dreamliner is the backbone of
Each aircraft sports two cabins, with 26 seats in Falcon Gold Class in a 2+2+2 layout and 256 in the economy (3+3+3).
After boarding through door 2L, the flight attendant escorted me to seat 4A (the last side-row in Falcon Gold, while the central couples of seats have five rows) and then took my coat. In business class, without the central baggage bins, you can fully appreciate how spacious is the cabin of the 787.
That evening, 25 out of 26 seats were occupied, but the distance between each row and the open suites arrangement guaranteed maximum privacy and quietness. For window-seated passengers like me, the open suites have the plus to guarantee unobstructed access to the aisle by means of a passage created between a couple of seats on each side of the plane.
As I settled, I found the usual pillow and duvet on the seat, and while handing me blue pyjamas, the FA informed me of the turndown service available (both on night and daylight flights) where, upon request of the passenger, the seat is transformed into a proper bed by laying a mattress for more comfort and hygiene.
A Cerruti vanity kit (containing socks, toothpaste and toothbrush, mouthwash, eyemask, earplugs, plus Aigner-branded body lotion, lip balm and refresher mist), a bottle of mineral water and noise-insulating headphones completed the set of amenities.
The seat pitch, at 83” (210cm), was huge even for business class standards (seat width was a very comfortable 36” – 91cm) as huge was the IFE screen positioned in the back of the seat in front: at 22” (56cm) it is one the largest available in a business class around the world.
Shortly, dinner menus were distributed and a welcome drink offered, with glasses of water, juice and champagne presented on a tray. Newspapers and hot or cold scented towels followed.
After that, the Skychef, one of two exclusive specialists that GF features onboard its 787s in Golden Falcon (the other being the Skynanny) came to take my dinner order.
I explained to him that I am allergic to garlic and he suggested me the courgette and spinach soup as a starter followed by beef medallions with baked potato and thyme just as the main course (entreè for Americans).
I noticed that, quite unusually, the menu indicated simply “Red and white wine” among the drinks. I asked him which types of reds were available and he replied an Italian from Tuscany and a Bordeaux so that I went with the latter.
When asked if I wanted to be awakened in time for breakfast, I declined his offer because out of the 6 hours and 10 minutes in the air announced by the captain, I hoped to sleep at least three to four hours and wake up just before landing in BAH.
Doors were closed at 21.45 and five minutes later we pushed back while the right Rolls Royce Trent 1000 was started for taxi. With takeoffs occurring on 27R that night at LHR, we had to cross 27L/09R and join a short queue of other departing aircraft, including British Airways’ 777-300ER and 747-400.
With the right engine up and running too, at 22.15 we finally started our take-off roll and took to the very cloudy London skies, making an endless, 180° degrees right turn to the east a couple of minutes later.
Our route would take us over the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, the Black Sea, central Turkey and Iraq before starting our descent into BAH over the Persian Gulf.
As soon as the climb to our initial 31,000ft (9,450m) cruising altitude was stabilzed, an aperitif of delicious mixed salted nuts and dried grapes accompanied by drinks (Jacquart Brut champagne in my case) was served.
I noticed that some of the companion travellers immediately set their seat into the bed position allowing maximum sleep during the rather short journey. Cabin lights remained dimmed for the entire flight, with only mood lighting on.
Good for sleeping, not so if you wanted to eat or read a book without turning on your personal light. As dinner service didn’t start, I used the remote control placed over the right armrest to explore the IFE to discover that as the screen was huge, such the movie, tv and music offer was small.
I counted a total of 77 films (with about a dozen new releases), 11 tv channels, 10 music albums and a similar number of games.
A thing that Gulf Air certainly has to address if the Bahraini carrier aims at competing with EK, EY, and QR, all of which boast wonderful entertainment systems aboard their aircraft.
The search for a movie to watch was interrupted by the FA handling white linen that she used to cover the large table extracted from my right armrest.
A set of pretty cutlery, a towel, sea, salt, butter and a mini-bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar followed just before the soup arrived with the FA presenting a selection of warm bread including Arabic pita.
The “red wine” came already poured in the glass, although the refill was performed by the FA from the bottle at my seat. The very delicate, delicious soup was shortly followed by the medaillons, adorned by grilled vegetables. The “baked potato” appeared like a sort of millefoglie pastry, with multiple, thin slices of potatoes one over the other. Original and beautiful to at the eye.
The meat was so tender that I didn’t even necessitate the knife to cut it. Overall, a delicious plate, although maybe a little too hearty for a late night dinner.
A beautiful cart filled with desserts, nuts, assorted cheeses and exotic fruit ended the dining experience. I asked for a platter of the latter, composed by the Skychefs, and that was all for that night.
When the table was cleaned, I asked the FA for the turnround bed service, and while she worked on it, I took the occasion for a trip to the toilet.
There, under the sink, a touch-controlled panel transformed the toilet bowl into a bidet for better cleaning and hygiene after using the WC. Something that I had never seen anywhere before on a plane but seems particularly appreciated by Arabian and far eastern travellers.
As I came back to my seat, I found a beautifully prepared bed, which I enjoyed for the three and a half remaining hours of flight. When the FA woke me up, we were a mere twenty minutes out of BAH, the cabin already set for landing.
I just had the time to set the upright position on the seat control electronic panel and fasten the seat belt before the captain called 10 minutes to land.
The last round of hot or cold towels anticipated final descent into a misty BAH, where we landed on 12L at 7.20. A couple of minutes later we docked at a boarding bridge, joining two Gulf Air A321s and one A330.
Two days later I was back at BAH with a special “mission” for my daylight business class flight back to LHR: to testimony and test (and, of course, enjoy) the afternoon tea service offered by Gulf Air, the only other carrier beside British Airways to feature such a treat.
The day started at the check-in area exclusively dedicated to first and business class passengers at BAH: a “rotunda” fitted with plants, sofas and beautiful lights with ten desks where I checked-in while seated in a comfy armchair. From there, a dedicated passage brought to immigration and security.
A really fast track, unlike that at T4 in London, after which I arrived directly into the gates area. With an hour and a half still to go for the 10.40 departure of GF003, I proceeded to Falcon Gold Lounge, situated one floor up from the departure concourse, near to gate 50.
Inside, it was about twice as large as its Heathrow sibling and like that, it sported huge windows allowing great views of the apron and the runway. Guests were treated to a full bar, a separate dining area with hot and cold platters (at this time of the day, breakfast), three different self-service coffee stations, plenty of sofas and armchairs, separates for enhanced privacy, a business center with PCs and printers, a prayer room, showers and a separate “quiet lounge” with real beds available for as little as 3BHD ($8).
No announcements were made in the lounge, so at 10.05 I left to reach gate 11 where my ride to LHR (A9-FD, the third 787 delivered to GF) was waiting. As the captain was giving his welcome onboard, I settled into 1A.
At 10.30 boarding completed was called and service started with the customary towel distribution, followed by menus and welcome drinks. Dates and Arabic coffee were also offered before pushback.
As 17 out of 26 seats were occupied on this leg, service was, of course, faster, and soon the Skychef reached me to take the lunch orders: in my case, a mixed salad followed by grilled red snapper served with rice pilaf, roasted fennels and cherry tomatoes.
To drink I opted for a French Chardonnay, the other option being an Italian Pinot Bianco. This time the Bourgogne white was poured from the start from the bottle, and, as I complained about it not being perfectly chilled, the Skychef apologized, changed my glass and arrived with a much colder bottle.
A snack of dried nuts and grapes accompanied the wine and preceded the salad, which was rich and crispy. As I asked to savour the fresh mushroom
The fish that followed was delicate and moist, the platter beautifully composed both in point of colours and position of the ingredients.
As on the other flight, I ended the meal with a fruit platter and skipped the desserts in order to better enjoy the afternoon tea service.
I spent the three hours to follow by watching a movie and sometimes taking a look at the moving maps, intrigued by the fact that, albeit at 38,000ft (11,581m) we overflew Iraq from south to north, a route stopped for a few years in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines B777 destroyed by a land-to-air missile over Crimea back in July 2014.
The “Oh-so British” afternoon tea service started about one hour prior to arrival. Half of the onboard meal cart was “sweet”, the other half “salted”. Passengers could choose from an assortment cakes, including slices of Wellington coconut cake, Raspberry cake and fuit pastry or typical scones (plain or with blueberry) served with marmalade or clotted cream; or they could enjoy a salted snack with a choice of salmon open sandwich, chicken-filled rolls or crem cheese on toasted bread.
Half a dozen varieties of teas were available, including English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Green, Min. Alternatively, you could choose American coffee, espresso or hot chocolate. The platters were majestically composed by the Skychef and every bite, including the scones, was delicious. That was by far the best “second meal service” I ever experienced on a plane.
Finally, too soon, we started our descent into London Heathrow, while the FAs ended a perfectly executed flight with a final round of hot or cold towels.
We approached the British Capital enjoying a great view of the river Thames estuary, before overflying the city centre at low altitude and touching down on 27L, the runway nearest to T4 where we docked a mere two minutes after landing.
With the new Golden Falcon, GF features a solid business class product, as in point of comfort as of food. The wine list might be greatly improved, particularly in point of variety.
The IFE features a great quality of image and sound, but if Gulf Air aims at competing with its larger Gulf sisters, the offer of movies, tv programs, and music must be greatly enriched.
Service onboard was outstanding, with that personal touch and attention to the single passenger that was much appreciated during the daylight service, when the longer flight-time allowed the cabin crew to display all their Arabic courtesy and savoir-faire.
- RESERVATION N/A
- CHECK-IN 9.00
- LOUNGE 8.50
- BOARDING 8.50
- SEAT 9.00
- AMBIENCE 8.50
- IFE 7.00
- CREW 10.00
- FOOD 9.00
- BEVERAGE 7.00
- AMENITY KIT 8.00
- ON TIME 9.00
- OVERALL 8,50