Friday, June 10, 2016

A Trip Report: Gulf Air, Kuwait to Abu Dhabi via Bahrain (March 2016)

A Trip Report: Gulf Air (March 2016)
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Gulf Air is the national airline of the gulf nation of Bahrain, and is the dominant carrier at Bahrain International Airport.  Gulf Air used to be a consortium of all the Gulf countries (hence the name) and used to have bases all around the Gulf – including Oman, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain.  Over the years, various countries pulled out of the consortium to start their own airlines and that left Bahrain to nominate Gulf Air as its national airline.  With the transitions, Gulf Air has ebbed and flowed but now they have seem to have gotten through the transition and are a good path forward.   

I had originally flown Gulf Air in the mid 1990’s when it was still a consortium, and we flew into Abu Dhabi and then out of Bahrain.  It was really interesting and the service was pretty good.  As Gulf Air went through its transition, I had heard it had an effect on its service.  Given that they were on the other side of the transition, they were focusing on improving services and their fleet so I wanted to give them another try.

We were flying from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi via Bahrain.  We had booked our ticket through a travel website, but then went to Gulf Air’s website to manage our booking and choose seats.  Gulf Air’s website is very user-friendly and easy to navigate.  When booking the ticket, we had a couple of options of our flight.   We could take a morning flight and connect easily to Abu Dhabi, take an afternoon flight and connect easily to Abu Dhabi, or take a morning flight and have a long layover in Bahrain and take the evening flight to Abu Dhabi.  We decided to take the third option as this would allow us to visit Manama for the day, and there was no price difference between the options.

Our first flight was scheduled to depart Kuwait at 11:35am and arrive Bahrain at 12:40pm, while the second flight was scheduled to depart Bahrain at 8:40pm and arrive Abu Dhabi at 10:50pm.  Both flight times were about one hour so they were short flights.   Gulf Air is a full-service airline so we were able to confirm our seat assignments prior to our flight, and our ticket included checked luggage as well as a free meal.  We were able to check-in for our flights 24-hours prior to our departure, and the Gulf Air app was very helpful in checking in and managing flights.  Given the short distances, I did not expect a meal to be served (I expected only drinks).  

We arrived at Kuwait International and check-in was a bit slow but immigration was quick so we had plenty of time to explore the airport.  We went to our gate and the plane arrived on schedule.  The waiting area looked generally full, so I thought it was a full flight but once boarding finished on the Airbus A321 there were a lot of empty seats (the plane was about 50-60% full).  The exterior of the plane looked nice and updated, and the inside of the plane also looked nice and updated.   The seats were also updated, but they were not very comfortable.  While fine for the short-duration, I am not sure how comfortable they would be for the long-haul.  The seat pitch was decent, but a bit tight.  It would be ok for the short-haul but not sure how comfortable for the long-haul.  There was a PTV on each seat, but there was no USB port (only a headphone jack).   The PTV was immediately available, and the selection was pretty good for the short-haul but not as extensive as I thought it would be. 

We took off generally on time, and as soon as we reached cruising altitude the service started.  Given the short duration, I did not expect much but we were served drinks plus a light snack.  The snack was a sandwich, and it was pretty large given the short duration of the flight.  It was a nice perk.  The service onboard was polite and professional, but not warm nor friendly.  As soon as the drinks session ended, it was time to land.  We deplaned via jetbridge and proceeded to go and explore Manama. 

Our flight from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi was scheduled to take off at 8:40pm, but we arrived at the airport very early.  There was a lot of people already waiting in the airport, and it was a bit hectic with lots of people transiting and waiting (there seemed to be a lot of people who looked like they were waiting for a long transit – the immigration officer said this is happening since they raised the fee of the visas).  We decided to pay for the lounge, and it was a great idea because the lounge was fantastic.  The lounge was located on the top level and it had a buffet of various food items, drinks, newspapers, a shower, clean restrooms, and free wifi.  I would definitely recommend the lounge.

About an hour prior to boarding we decided to head to our gate.  Our gate was located on the bottom level, as we would have to take a bus to our plane.   The boarding announcement was a bit chaotic and once we boarded the bus there was a long wait until it actually departed for the plane.  Once we got to the plane, it was not very well-lit so it was a bit dark.  We boarded the Airbus A320 (extended range) for our flight to Abu Dhabi.  After we had boarded and settled into our seat, we sat for a while apparently waiting for the remaining passengers – we waited approximately 20-25 minutes for those passengers and thus we were delayed in our departure (the second bus contained the remaining half of the passengers).    As soon as the passengers boarded, the doors closed and we push-backed for take-off.

The ride from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi was very similar to our first ride – the seats were decent but not too comfortable, the seat pitch was a bit tight but decent, the entertainment system was the same, and the service was also the same - polite and professional but not friendly.  The service on board was also the same, as drinks and the sandwich were served.  Again, the flight time was only 1 hour so as soon as the service finished we were descending into Abu Dhabi.  We landed and proceeded to the jetbridge at Abu Dhabi International.
Overall, it was a decent flying experience with Gulf Air.  Given the short distance, they provided a decent seat with decent service.  Positives included the seat-back PTV, substantial snack, and partner with various airlines to earn miles.  Negatives included the lack of seat comfort, the lack of the USB port, and the customer-service.  Given the right circumstances – price and flight time – I would choose Gulf Air again for short-haul; however, based on this experience I am not sure I would choose them for long-haul travel.

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