Gulf Air makes massive plane purchases


Apr. 7--MANAMA, Bahrain -- Gulf Air, the national carrier of Bahrain, has set in motion a makeover with a bold fleet renewal and product enhancement in the hopes of regaining profitability in the coming years amid fierce competition and a hostile operating environment.

Ushering in the new era for the 59-year-old carrier is the deployment of four new Boeing 777-300ERs, the world's largest long-range civil airplane, on its trunk routes linking Bahrain's capital with Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, London and intra-Gulf states.

Three of the four jetliners, leased from India's Jet Airways, are due for delivery to the state-owned carrier by the end of March, with a fourth in May.

The new planes represent the first step in Gulf Air's extensive fleet modernisation, which includes the staggering orders of 59 new aircraft, including 24 Boeing 787 "Dreamliners" from Boeing (worth nearly US$6 billion) and 20 A330s and 15 A320s from Airbus (valued at $5.17 billion).

This year, the airline is scheduled to take deliveries of four wide-body A330s and five narrow-body A320s.

By putting the four B777s into service, Gulf Air is signalling its return to the forefront of the premium travel market, where aggressive rivals in the Persian Gulf like Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have ruled.

"The deployment of these B777s is meant to clearly show the world our intention to enhance our products, become an airline of choice, and bring Gulf Air back to profitability," said Gulf Air chief executive Bjorn Naf.

The airline has been running in the red, to the tune of more than $1 million a day at one stage, and has worked strenuously to catch up with its neighbours.

Gulf Air hopes to break even by 2010-11, but with the global economic recession and the slump in air travel demand, Mr Naf indicated that timeline may change.

"I don't like to always change the goalposts, but to drive to the target," he said. "Nobody can forecast how deep the recession will be and how long it will last. We're doing all we need to do in order to go through the storm and come out the other side healthy."

While many airlines around the world are deferring reception of new aircraft, if not cancelling orders to reduce capacity to survive the global economic downturn, Gulf Air has no intention to follow suit and remains committed to its delivery schedules.

In spite of the aircraft orders, Gulf Air is not embarking on a massive expansion like other Gulf carriers.

"We're not actually growing in size (in the short term), but repositioning ourselves to become an airline of choice," he said. "We want to become smarter not bigger. We don't want to outpace other carriers around us."

In fact, Gulf Air has shrunk in terms of capacity, fleet and network. In the past 18 months, it took out six destinations including Kolkata and downsized the fleet, he explained.

Most of the new aircraft brings passenger offerings to the level of other Gulf airlines, and are largely meant for replacement according to a fixed timetable.

By 2016, Gulf Air will have a total of 88 aircraft.

The airline's current network stretches from Europe to Asia and covers 42 cities in 27 countries while its fleet consists of 32 aircraft. It carried six million passengers last year.

Its current fleet is aged, some as old as 14 years, and Gulf Air intends to bring the average fleet age to between six and seven years, according to Mr Naf.

The carrier has no immediate plan to launch any new destinations until the current economic situation changes for the better, he pointed out.

The airline's evolution is largely geared toward supporting Bahrain's "Vision 2030" national growth plan, or more specifically, linking the kingdom to the rest of the world, he explained.

Gulf Air will deploy the new B777s and its own A330 jetliner on the Manama-Bangkok route tomnorrow.

From July 1, it will ramp up frequencies on the route to 14 flights a week from 11 currently.

"Thailand is very important to us, it is a route that has been doing very well, so we want to strengthen it," Mr Naf said.

The B777s offering 312 seats and a first-class section with a private suite featuring a fully-flat bed complete with a personal wardrobe, while the herringbone-design business class offers a flat bed with 180-degree reclining ability and a privacy wall for personal space and world-class linens.

Economy class seats come with more leg space, 130-degree reclining ability and an adjustable hammock headrest.