Aircraft Type: 787-9
Class: Business Class (Flacon Gold)
Date: October 2018
Gulf Air used to be one of the leading carriers in the Gulf region, however, bold upstarts like Emirates quickly stole the crown, with heavy investment in new aircraft and a fairly courageous growth plan, leaving Gulf Air with a lacklustre, dated product that could no longer compete in the region. While the carrier invested in a new product on their A330 fleet a few years ago, helping the brand be more competitive, it’s only really the introduction of their 787s with brand new cabins that have injected a new lease of life in to the carrier.
We took the new aircraft for a spin, and want to start our report by stating in comparison to a flight just a few years ago, the cabins have had an unplanned benefit to the passenger experience: happier, proud cabin crew who even compared to our connecting A330 flight crews on the same trip, couldn’t be polar opposite.
On the ground
Gulf Air have two flights a day from Heathrow, with the day flight leaving just after the morning rush from Terminal 4, meaning that passengers benefit from a quieter airport experience.
Situated in Zone D, the check in zone is simply split in to two boarding zones, as the carrier doesn’t feature a premium economy cabin. As you can tell from the photo above, even though the aircraft was fairly full, there was hardly any queue, and the Business Class passengers had two desks which was plenty for just a cabin of just 26 seats seats.
On the airside, the airline has its own lounge, which is a definite benefit, the other benefit is the fantastic view it commands over 27L/09R runway at Heathrow, with its large floor to ceiling windows.
The lounge, designed by JPA Design is well appointed, and even with the new brand by Tangerine and Saffron Consultants it stands the test of time, with a modern, clean aesthetic. While it doesn’t fulfil the latest trend of bringing the residential and hotelier elements to the aviation industry, the lounge still sits as a tight, well conceived product, in some ways outshining its flagship counterpart in Bahrain.
The space offers a fully tendered bar and barista service from the centre of the lounge, there is also a buffet dining station and small private areas that can be used for private meetings, or an alcove should you be travelling with kids, but there are also business facilities and plenty of lounge seating which include small cabinets to hang jackets and act as charging points too. While we could have spent a few hours sipping on champagne and enjoying the apron view, we headed to the aircraft approximately 40 minutes before take off, just a short walk from the lounge.
We had high expectations on the new 787 cabin. In our original reveal of the cabin a while ago, the Apex Suite detailing looked amazing, the business class passenger experience seemed a lot more impressive, and should the service live up to the investment in the hard product, we felt Gulf Air could be on to a winning formula, perhaps replicating the success of Oman Air in the region.
Being greeted by this cabin, were certainly weren’t disappointed. A high ceiling, seemingly unblemished cabin and clean, elegant lines, and rich textures awaited us. The entry was somewhat a bit of a surprise, usually being greeted by two galley units, however, on stepping inside, you were instantly transported in to this open Business Class cabin.
The whole area felt incredibly customised, with every bulkhead adorned by a rich pattern, and impressive relief rose gold Falcon Logos on the walls. This attention to detail, muted palette and use of greys, bronzes and rose golds meant the cabin provided a much needed gilded finish that spoke of opulence, but without the garish bling that can be found in competing Emirates fleet.
The cabin is arranged in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration, although the Apex Suites offer all passengers aisle access. There is great reason why this configuration is deemed one of the most successful, and adept in the 787 cabin. All passengers get a forward facing private suite, which bar having a door, isn’t overlooked by the neighbour.
Similar to the BA Club World seat (except imagine them all facing forward, being much wider, and generally light years ahead) each seat offers a First Class passenger experience without the First Class price tag.
Although hard to photograph in its entirety, the seats do differ slightly. There are three main options to choose from. The centre pairs are pairs, side by side, perfect for travelling together, as well as solo travellers, due to the partition that can be raised from the start of the flight.
Then there are the window seats, which are the most private, benefitting from a small egress to the aisle at the foot end of the seat, while these are private, they also suit passengers travelling with a partner, as again the partition can be lowered. The benefit being that Gulf Air staff have obviously been trained not to use the partition unless it is lowered, meaning that the BA ‘lower the divider, raise the divider’ games don’t happen.
They also benefit from having some pretty large windows to look out of, which is inflight entertainment at its best. The third type of seat are the aisle seats on the outside pairs of the aircraft. These may suit larger passengers, as the access to the window seats can be a little tight.
While the window seats have a fold down extension to the seat, similar to those found on BA, the aisle seats don’t meaning it’s easier to recline into a fully flat position. Although those wanting to fully recline into a slumber, might want to wait for the cabin crew to come through the cabin and supply the mattress protectors for the seats.
The seat itself is incredibly comfortable, although the one negative to these seats is the lack of both storage, and work surfaces, meaning even placing a drink become perilous with the smallest bit of turbulence. Luckily, the designers have added a leather finish to these small ledges, which helps increase grip for anything placed on it. (Luckily the aisle seats do benefit from a small ledge to place items on, which is an added benefit, compared to the other seats in the cabin).
The seat detailing however, is absolutely superb, and one of the best we’ve seen in recent years. The brushed metal finishes, metal trim and textures running through the cabin are exceptionally detailed, and the build quality of the seats is without question.
While we’ve experienced many seats over our many years of travels, there are few which we’ve found particularly robust, but these seats look like they will stand the test of time, something that is important for a boutique carrier such as Gulf air, to ensure that such an investment lasts for many years.
The Food & Drink
Upon entering the cabin, we were lucky enough to be one of the first to board. This meant that we were quickly offered a welcome drink, with smiling, genuinely interested staff that were happy to settle us in to our seat.
Interestingly the glassware and some of the service pieces weren’t decked out in the new brand yet. A small detail that we look forward to being updated in the near future. The champagne, Jacquart Brut, was super chilled and a refreshing tipple as the rest of the guests boarded.
Once boarded, a very happy team then headed through the cabin providing Arabic coffee and dates, and while a lovely gesture, it’s one amenity we don’t have the palette for, so we declined. Not that it wiped the smile off the crew.
Forgive us, but this time we had forgotten to take a photo of the menu, and by the time we had remembered, the menus had been collected, so we have included images of the menu on our return flight to give you an example of what is included.
Before take off, our orders were taken including after-take off aperitifs. Like Turkish Airlines, Gulf Air offers a sky chef, a dedicated crew member whose responsibility is to heat and plate the dishes in a restaurant style. After take off, nuts were served, along with empty glasses.
Champagne was then poured at seat. It’s a wonderful touch and showcases how this carrier has taken a quantum leap in its product offering, not just investing in a hard product, but investing heavily in the soft product too,
Shortly after the table was laid, using a tray covered in a table cloth containing all the regular service items and the starter. We had opted for the Arabic Meze, a great benchmark against its competitors.
It’s a perfectly acceptable dish, made all the better by the addition of a hand pour of olive oil from the cabin crew (and a hand pour of sauvignon blanc).
The dish was supported by a bread basket that quickly followed the course. We opted for flatbreads, which were toasted, both moist and crispy and the perfect accompaniment to the dish.
What followed was the most amazing fish curry, which had the perfect blend of heat and flavour with perfectly cooked fish. That can’t be understated. The fish was perfectly cooked. It was so good we almost, just almost asked for a second course.
And then the desert tray came. A myriad of delights, from apple tart to chocolate fondants, creme brûlée’s, cheese and fruit. It was too much to handle. But it’s only because we had all of it.
Throughout the flight the cabin crew remained attentive and ensured any glasses were never left empty. While a fairly short 6.45 hour flight, we still received a second meal (as did those in economy) Although just an afternoon tea, it quite easily beats the weaker attempt of British Airways as of late.
A mix of eclairs, roast beef and horseradish open and finger sandwiches weren’t stale of soggy, and topped us up to ensure we weren’t still hungry before landing (although the impressive spread in the Bahrain lounge would have quietened any rubbling tummy.)
Business Class (known as Falcon Gold) features a fairly large TV screen, and while situated further away from the passenger compared to some Business Class configurations, it’s certainly still an imposing TV screen size.
The system contains a large collection of movies, and while not the most up to date, they certainly are decent enough to entertain over most of Gulf Air’s routes.
The seat benefits from a touchscreen phone-style controller, which sits in the seat (top tip – the perfect size to put in iPhone X on top securely) which allows passengers not only to control the IFE system, but also elements such as lighting, and the ‘do not disturb’ function which highlights the seat number in Red, making sure that cabin crew leave you alone.
The IFE system also features standard noise cancelling headphones. While not the Denon headset found in Turkish, they were perfectly acceptable, especially considering the low noise level found in the 787 cabin.
Another welcome benefit to the Gulf Air 787 is that it features enhanced benefits to the rest of the Gulf Air fleet. From mattress protectors to slippers, Gulf Air offers a myriad of amenities. But the one fantastic benefit to 787 passengers on overnight flights is the addition of pyjamas.
Our recommendation is go for 1 or 2 sizes larger than you usually do, as they seem to be made for catwalk models. But they are very comfortable and with the falcon emblem on the chest, make for a quite stylish set.
The amenity kit was acceptable, with a Guy Laroche branded bag, Aigner hand cream, eye mask, socks, earbuds and dental kit all on offer.
While we were expecting a cabin that was going to impress, what we weren’t prepared for was the incredible impact this was going to have on the soft product and positioning of the carrier. While our A330 experience was still OK, it didn’t have the same passenger experience as the 787 product, highlighting the immense pride cabin crew take in their environment, and the necessity to invest in industry leading hard products to affect the entire passenger offering.
We were not only pleasantly surprised to see such a fantastic hard product, but also, impressed to see the carrier seemingly have turned a corner, with a larger emphasis on customer service. This airline, like Oman Air, now offer a (sometimes cheaper) and better customer experience than it’s ME3 competitors. Could this be the rise of the boutique carrier? We certainly hope so.
The Big Picture
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