ABOVE THE CLOUDS AND EXPECTATIONS
A review of a flight London Heathrow – Dubai vía Bahrain on Gulf Air- Gold Falcon Class
Flying to London from Dubai with a stopover in Bahrain is not a journey a holiday traveller is likely to make in place of a direct flight.
But Gulf Air provided two solid reasons to fly via Bahrain: a highly competitive business class fare, less than half the price of its main rivals; and personal service on smaller planes that harks back to the carrier’s golden age in the 1970s and ‘80s. Of course, the direct flight alternatives are Emirates and BA; the UAE carrier, despite of being tempting with its A380 had quite a high price for the dates and times convenient for me, and British Airways surprised me recently with major disappointments, both on short and long haul service. Therefore the choice this time was Gulf Air without having too many expectations apart of a decent and good value for money business class trip.
I was pleasantly surprised by Gulf Air. I had low expectations going in, just looking at Gulf Air’s trajectory. Back in the day they were a leader in the Middle East, though over the years their financial situations and route network seems to have gotten progressively worse. Gulf Air was the main regional carrier in the 1970s and ‘80s with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman as equal shareholders. Qatar was the first to leave in 2002 to concentrate on Qatar Airways, followed by Abu Dhabi to launch Etihad in 2003 and Oman in 2007
Ticket reservation and pre-flight support
I booked the tickets via www.skyscanner.com and the travel agent sent me quite quick the reservation number so i could access the Gulf Air website (www.gulfair.com). Not a very sophisticated website like the competition, with a basic design but, at least with an easy access and all information needed. Because my reservation was from an external website I couldn’t choose the seats for my flights. Therefore, I manage to contact via social media the Gulf Air and SURPRISE: they replied immediately (British Airways needed 1 week and EasyJet 1 week). I was contacted by phone by an agent and booked the seats immediately. Great job. Later, when I check the aircraft configuration on www.seatguru.com I realised that my allocated seats were close to the toilets. I sent an email to Gulf Air, with no expectation of a solution, requesting a change in seating. The second BIG surprise: got a replay in less than 24 hours with the new seats and the agent told me that he “took the liberty” to give me the best seats in the house. WOW!
In Heathrow T4 check-in was always quicker than in T5. And Gulf Air, even if doesn’t’ have 3 hostesses running around with no purpose or a red carpet, was very efficient, the check-in was quick and without too much fuss. After that, using the Fast Track, the security check was quite fast and efficient and I had enough time to enjoy Christmas in T4 3 weeks earlier…but that’s Heathrow.
Gold Falcon Lounge – LHR T4
The Gold Falcon Lounge in T4 was a very pleasant surprise, being one of the best that I’ve visited in a while. And I am sure that you remember my posts about British Airways Lounge in T5 and the feeling of being lost in the train station during rush hours.
The lounge is located next to gate 7 (opposite the WHSmith and World Duty Free stores), from where the majority of Gulf Air’s twice-daily flights depart. There is a large Gulf Air sign on the wall, along with one for Malaysia Airlines, which suggests that the two carriers are sharing the same lounge, when in fact MAS has its own lounge located above Gulf Air. I was keen to see what the Gulf Air lounge would be like. Gulf Air isn’t in a very good financial situation so I was kind of surprised they had a lounge in London, and given that they did, I had fairly low expectations. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised.
The lounge was indeed gorgeous. First impressions are of a light, airy lounge, both in terms of the light, and the décor which mixes cream and sandy colours with the blue from the carrier’s livery. One feature for me that’s important in an airport lounge is the seating area. The dining area has comfy chairs with tables and a power point at each one which is built in to the coat stand. In addition to that there are some good views straight onto the tarmac. If you want a little more privacy or are travelling as a family, then you might want to go into one of the small rooms that are there with a TV and sofa. They are just to one side of the lounge next to the dining area.
There are also several “Dilmun seals” adorning the lounge walls, a nod to the ancient civilization of which the Fort of Bahrain Fort (or Qal`at al-Bahrain) is considered by UNESCO to have been the capital.
Walking in to the lounge there is a reception desk to the left with departure boards, and a locker room to the right for storing luggage. Past reception and off to the left are the toilet facilities, with stylish curved basins and mosaic tiling. There was a small but functional office area with a few Macs if you need to do any work or just get onto the internet. This area was screened off from the rest of the lounge.
Past the business centre there is an island bar with stool seating, serving soft and alcoholic drinks, including a signature Falcon Spirit cocktail which comes in both alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. There is no self-service but the bartender was friendly, knowledgeable and could actually make a wide variety of drinks. The staff in the lounge were also happy to chat and they would also take order when you were sat down in one of the comfy lounge areas.
The dining area is one of the areas that the lounge excels in. The dinner menu consists of hot and cold snacks and mezze, salads, sandwiches and wraps, soups, “hot main dishes”, a selection of desserts, fruit salad and fresh fruits. Is a perfect option if you want to have a quiet flight skip the in-flight dinner and sleep all the way to Bahrain.
Gulf Air Lounge London Heathrow bottom line: I was very pleasantly surprised by the Gulf Air ground experience in London. Their lounge is gorgeous, given that they only have two flights a day with a total of 72 premium seats (and based on what I’ve seen, their flights almost never seem to be full). Not only was it nicely decorated, but the food spread was good and the service was attentive. At this point I was hoping the on-board experience would match the ground experience
I don’t think I’ve ever boarded a plane as “blind” as when I got on this Gulf Air flight. SeatGuru shows three configurations for Gulf Air’s A330s, none of which matched the seatmap for my flight. Gulf Air’s website barely even refers to their new business class product, which I assumed my flight would have.
The first impression is great. I boarded through door 2L where a hostess welcomed me on board while another one escorted me to my seat. Gulf Air’s business class cabin consists of a total of 36 seats, spread across two identical cabins. Each cabin features a total of three rows in a 2-2-2 configuration — one is before the main entry door, and one is behind the main entry door, and they’re separated by the galley and lavatories. The business class product was nice — this wasn’t a state of the art business class product or anything, but instead they were standard forward facing fully flat seats. They’re quite nice, especially if you’re traveling with someone.
Even before take-off, we were offered a refreshing towel, choosing between a cold or hot one. That was a premiere for me. Arabic coffee followed, then local dates presented in a basket. All of that and we were still on ground! It seems like a unique experience!
I took the opportunity to look at the amenity kit, which was quite nice for a short flight, and contained Chopard branded toiletries.
After I had a few minutes to settle in, the Scottish onboard chef, Derek, came by to introduce himself. He was charming and very friendly — perhaps even a bit too enthusiastic, if there is such a thing — and clearly loved his job. He handed me the menu and went over the dining “concept” for the flight. He explained there would be dinner after take-off, then continental breakfast before landing, and that I should let him know if I needed anything. While still at the gate with the door closed, Derek came around the cabin to take meal orders. There were printed menus, but despite that you couldn’t get a word in without Derek basically listing everything on the menu. Which I sort of found cute, because he clearly loved his job. “Have you decided what you would like as your starter? Maybe an Arabic mezze? Or maybe I can tempt you with a fresh garden salad? “…“And for your main course, have you decided? I have a lovely lamb shank. Or would you prefer a sea bass fillet?”
On the climb out I decided to browse the entertainment selection. The selection wasn’t amazing, in that there wasn’t much variety, some old movies, a small collection of music and some not very well rated new releases. But at the end of the day it was a short night flight and hoping that I will get some sleep before landing ion Manama I was happy seeing AGAIN “Devil wears Prada” and listen to some ABBA songs.
It was about 20 minutes after take-off before drinks were served. Gulf Air isn’t a dry airline on long-haul flights — they do have alcohol and a quite interesting wine list. I ordered a glass of champagne to start, which was served with some mixed nuts and a nice Chablis for my dinner
The dinner service was slow to start. That was quite weird for a night flight because it was about 60 minutes into the flight before service started. For the starter, I had the Arabic mezze and some Arabic pita to accompany it. It was nice, tasty and the presentation, quality, and quantity was above what BA will serve you on a long-haul flight to Middle East. For the main course, I had the slow cooked lamb shank, which was very tasty and nice presented. Dessert was served off a trolley, and looked divine. I managed to restrain myself and only have an opera cake, which was really good. Next a fruit and cheese cart was rolled around, which was very tempting.
The service throughout the meal was attentive enough. Derek clearly loved his job, though the rest of the crew was a little bit less enthusiastic. I guess I kind of perceived the crew’s mentality as being “well, we wanted to work at Emirates or Etihad and didn’t get the job, so I guess this is better than British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.” At least that’s how it felt. By the time the meal service was done we were only about three hours outside of Bahrain. I decided to nap for a bit, which was quite a big mistake as I woke up more tired that I was before. 90 minutes before landing a continental breakfast was served with orange juice coffee and fresh fruits platter.
Shortly thereafter we began our descent, and I stowed all my belongings. We had a smooth touchdown in Bahrain, and after a five minute taxi made it to the gate right on schedule.
Gold Falcon Lounge – Manama Airport
The lounge in Bahrain airport, the hub of Gulf Air was a little disappointment. Of course, after the experience in Heathrow, the lounge in Manama airport had big shoes to fill. I like the layout of this Gulf Air lounge with different areas for kids, business and some big couches to lie down on (though there are only a few of these). The food selection was ok but a little limited, however the beverage selection was excellent. A panoramic view of aircraft taking off and landing provides a diverting backdrop to the sleek minimalist Arabian style incorporated throughout the lounge. Elevated seating areas offer comfort and privacy to guests, while plasma screens hanging from the ceiling provide news and entertainment. While you will be told at check in that flights are not called the reverse is true – some flights are called (very disturbing to sleep when there are no earplugs available!) on a very odd seemingly random basis. The desk staff is quite polite while service staff in the lounge tries to be unobtrusive but fails miserably clattering dishes and glassware making a lot of noise when replenishing food and drink. Once again the memories of British Airways lounge in T5 made me think that in Manama the lounge was much better.
Flight Bahrain – Dubai
The aircraft was definitely not new but was clean and not very busy in Business Class. The seats were large and very comfortable not like the ones used in Europe for short haul flights. We were offered pre-departure drinks, mint juice, water and orange juice. After departure they offered us Arabic coffee and dates plus a cooked breakfast. Was a very short flight and I managed to catch some sleep… not too much as the number of the announcements was a little bit too much for a 55 minutes trip.
Gulf Air Business Class bottom line
I was pleasantly surprised by Gulf Air. I had low expectations going in, just looking at Gulf Air’s trajectory. Back in the day they were a leader in the Middle East, though over the years their financial situations and route network seems to have gotten progressively worse.
Are they Emirates or Etihad? Nope. But in the grand scheme of things they offered a competitive product. They had a nice hard product, on board chef, and perfectly edible food. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.
Thank you very much Gulf Air for an excellent experience and look forward to fly with you again…actually already booked the next trip with Gulf Air!