Rebranded as a boutique airline, with new management and lofty goals, Gulf Air, one of the oldest carriers in the region, is on the runway to compete again in the crowded Gulf aviation market.
The Bahrain-based carrier believes it can attract business flyers and millennium’s leisure travelers by offering a unique travel experience, new vacation and business destinations and an ever-expanding list of codeshare partners.
Founded in 1950 by a British pilot and entrepreneur as a private company, Gulf Air was purchased in 1973 by the Kingdom of Bahrain, the State of Qatar, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the Sultanate of Oman.
By 1985, Emirates was launched in the United Arab Emirates. In 2002, Qatar withdrew from the partnership and launched its own airline. In 2006, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi withdrew from Gulf Air and established its own airline, Etihad Airways. In 2007, the government of Bahrain claimed full ownership of Gulf Air as joint-owner Oman withdrew from the airline.
Today, on the eve of its 40th anniversary, Gulf Air is in the process of reinventing itself once again.
In a telephone interview, Gulf’s CEO Krešimir Kučko, who joined the airline in late 2017 after serving as CEO of Croatia Airlines, said 2018 was largely a year of rebuilding.
“We did a lot” in 2018, Kučko said. “We restructured and revamped the whole company with a new management viewpoint.” He noted that the changes affect “not only what you can see — the aircraft, the uniforms — but also the network. How we build the network was very scientific. The company embraced technological development; today we use the data we gather at a very high level.”
That process included determining the airline’s place in the aviation industry and which flyers it would most aggressively seek to attract.
“Every airline needs to find its niche,” he explained. “Our niche is the boutique concept. That means offering our passengers a unique travel experience from the time they make their first call to book a flight until they come back from that trip. We want to make it as personal as it can be.
“At the same time, we offer the ultimate comfort in each class. Our business class seats have a first-class pitch – our business class is by far the best. We also combine some features which are normally related to the first class, with the selection of food and drinks, that, combined with our traditional hospitality, gives the passenger a unique feel,” he said.
He said he was especially proud of the airline’s Boeing 787 fleet.
He boasted about “the setup of the cabin, the size of the seats, especially in business class, but even in economy class. We give passengers one of the longest pitches and the biggest economy seats anywhere. Our entertainment system is the latest work of technology; it has the biggest screens in economy class.”
The airline chief said he already sees signs that the boutique concept, along with the introduction of the 787-9 aircraft, is starting to pay off.
“On our London flights, we have increased capacity with two flights a day aboard our Dreamliner 787-9. And we are achieving a better load at a higher average fare than before. You can see that this product is actually a game-changer,” he said.
He also noted that business-class bookings to Manila surged after the airline replaced its A330 with a new 787-9.
To build upon its existing strengths, Gulf is cautiously expanding in the region. “Last year we opened six more routes — most of them were in the region — in order to make our position as strong as possible,” Kučko said.
And to attract more business and millennium leisure travelers, the airline has added flights to places like the Maldives, while increasing frequencies to Bangkok. Next year, Gulf Air will start flying to Kuala Lumpur, Munich, Mykonos and Milan.
By 2021, Kučko hopes the airline will be offering direct flights to the United States.
Gulf Air still aims to establish a global footprint. But instead of expanding into new markets, it has chosen to enter into codeshare agreements with an ever-expanding list of airlines.
Recent additions include SriLankan Airlines and Middle East Airlines. It entered a codeshare agreement with KLM this fall and expanded its agreement with Turkish Airlines. Its codeshare with American Airlines provides access to major cities in the U.S. market. And, Kučko said, the airline has “close cooperation,” including a codeshare agreement, with Etihad Airlines, based in Abu Dhabi.
Kučko said the airline still has more work ahead of it. “Last year was a year of change when we introduced a completely new product,” he said. “It takes some time for the changes to be fully recognized, and, of course, we have to work on that as well.”
Passenger loads are still below Kučko’s goal. “Our load factor is not on the level of airlines in America,” he said. “We’re getting close to 80 percent – it’s not at 80 percent, but we are getting quite strong.”
And Gulf Air still lags behind other carriers in the region when it comes to its ranking by Skytrax, which runs an influential airline rating service. Kučko blamed Gulf’s relatively score on the airline not having been audited by Skytrax since 2017 and called the poor showing “a procedural issue.” He said he believed the airline would finish among its peers when the next round of audits is completed.
Continued fleet renewal should help Gulf Air reach its goals. Renewal began last year and should be completed by 2023. By then, Gulf Air’s fleet should include 10 Boeing 787-9s, 12 A320neos and 21 A321neos, eight of which will be long-range or capable of flights to Europe.
“Our 321neo fleet will have flat-bed seats in business,” Kučko said. “No other airline in the world can say that.”