Following the resounding success of the Bahrain International Air Show, which ended last weekend, has the Bahrain cabinet thrown their full weight behind Gulf Air, which was not just the official carrier but also a key sponsor of the event. It was reported in the local media in Bahrain earlier in the week that the government is set to ensure the long term viability of their national airline which is going through period of reorganization and focusing afresh on their inherent strengths, based on the most extensive network in the Middle East, through well planned expansion and improved service levels, on the ground and in the air.
It is here that Gulf Air during a recent trip with them has excelled, first when checking in at Entebbe en route to Bahrain, and then again when travelling back home.
Constrained, like any other airline, in Entebbe by available check in spaces, the airline is checking in passengers via their handling agent ENHAS under the keen and watchful eyes of the GF station manager, making sure that passengers are checked in swiftly and get the seat they prefer, with premium passengers then able to pass the time till boarding in the First / Business Class lounge. Their baggage is priority labeled and it did arrive first off the plane in Bahrain, where however I was met airside, ushered through immigration and customs and my baggage delivered as I had a cup of tea, before enjoying the limo service to the Gulf Hotel where I was booked.
While on board, outbound from Entebbe the flight had a trained Sous Chef in attendance in the front cabin, chefs uniform included, and she proved to be competent to discuss menus, recipes and the finer aspect of Arabic cuisine, of which a starter and main course was available.
Gulf Air has expanded in recent times their concept of inflight services, has Sky Chefs flying on their long haul flights and started to deploy them now also on selected routes in the medium haul network, like the routes to East Africa. Premium class passengers will appreciate the effort, as being looked after by the Purser on the flight AND another crewmember / chef is sure to provide service levels superior to those of other airlines.
A carefully chosen wine selection provides the added component of fine dining in the sky, and while I opted on my outbound flight, in view of the early hours, for water and tea, the wines were all presented to me and their characteristics expertly explained by my chef mine indeed as on that sector I was the only passenger in the front cabin. And as to my choice of drink, my chef asked how I like my tea and brewed to perfection I had a fresh steaming hot cuppa next to me throughout, while I worked the night away on my netbook, until breakfast was served eventually, perfectly timed to end just as the aircraft was leaving the cruising altitude of 39.000 feet to start the descend into Bahrain.
Let me turn to the menus now, showing what awaits a passenger in Gulfs premium class on medium haul flights from say Africa to Bahrain, before connecting on to ones final destination, or for that matter staying over in Bahrain for a few days, which while admittedly not as glitzy as Dubai, nevertheless convinces visitors with a unique charm and a citys personality where the ancient does meet with the present and the future. Small clearly is beautiful in this case and it was an eye opener indeed, being my first ever visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain.
In one of the menus I met our regions own David Mutonga, a young chef from Kenya, who joined Gulf Air as part of the airlines culinary offensive aimed to please the palate of their passengers and who introduces his Basil Lamb recipe, probably having trained on preparing lamb from the Kenyan highlands during his apprentice years back home in East Africa, where the sheep flocks from around Molo still rank amongst the finest lamb in the world. The menus for passengers offer a recipe each from one of the acclaimed chefs the airline now employs and also shows the ingredients used, colourful, spicy and exotic, treating ones palate to a symphony of taste revelations and impressions just as intense as listening to an opera, for those with an exquisite taste that is.
For both meals I opted for the Arabic dishes and in particular the breakfast dish Foul Medames proved the right choice, tasty and setting the tone for the meals to come in Bahrain, and also keeping me sustained as work was on the agenda from the moment I had checked in at The Gulf Hotel (see my TripAdvisor review as Safariafficionado).
It is no wonder that the latest surveys by IATA on the quality of member airlines showed a marked increase in satisfaction levels by Gulf Air travelers surveyed, with Gold Falcon passengers giving a 4 out of a possible 5, up significantly since previous surveys and bound to rise further, considering the experience I had myself, on the ground and in the air. In fact, the cabin crew ranking reached a 4.16 out of a possible 5, again confirming that they indeed went out of their way to please and serve passengers with not just dedication but a smile, and not just for me.
The addition of new services, like web based check in including seat selection too has found high approval ratings, though I must admit that being dropped off by the hotel limo at a dedicated Gold Falcon premium passenger terminal at Bahrains international airport was an experience by itself. Fast track from the red carpet into the lounge like facility to the ONE POINT security check, where all hand baggage is screened as are passengers, and then one is within a few metres in the main departure level where all the restaurants and duty free shops are located. Yet, premium passengers have of course access to an upstairs lounge, where a wide window front allows perfect views across the runway with planes constantly landing and taking off, many of them of course from Gulf Air as this is their home base.
Added information collected while in Bahrain also confirmed that Gulf Air, first to be introduced on their long haul fleet, has started to introduce live TV and wireless broad band connectivity, something which according to airline sources is to be expanded across all their aircraft in coming months. Gulf Air CEO Mr. Samer Majali, whom I met at the Bahrain Air Show 2012 said about these developments: Customers have become more discerning and their travel preferences keep changing in tune with their business, social and lifestyle developments. It is imperative, therefore that we proactively and periodically assess the quality of service and products we offer them at every customer touch point in their journey. The opinions of our passengers provide a valuable insight allowing us to identify where we excel as well as areas for improvement. An indication of this is the high ratings for the regional jets, indicating the strategy to introduce regional jets into our fleet has been embraced by customers. The survey results clearly show that we are customer-focused. We will continue to work to improve every point of contact with our customers from the first interaction with Gulf Air, whether it’s our Worldwide Contact Centre, www.gulfair.com, or airport, boarding, on-board services and baggage claim.
Having a dedicated Chief Services Officer, serving alongside his colleagues in operations, ground handling, finance and other conventional main stream company departments, has brought recognition to this crucial element in service delivery to the level of top management, and Marcus Bernhardt is quite honestly doing a sterling job, considering the rising ratings by passengers in times of a once again harsher economic environment in which even Gulf based airlines have to operate. Going by his small is beautiful he mentioned when officiating at the airlines inaugural flight celebration in Kampala in early December, the beautiful part can be fully believed though the small it is not going to be forever as Gulf Air is growing their network and fleet to become the force the once were, when they were THE pan-Gulf airline back in the 50s, 60s and 70s before national pride across the region saw each Emirate and country set up their own airline, turning Gulf Air into the sole national airline of the Kingdom of Bahrain today.
Watch this space for regular updates from the aviation scene in Eastern Africa and from the Indian Ocean island, including my personal experiences when flying on one of the airlines coming to Entebbe.