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Gulf Air amazed us on its flagship route from London to Bahrain on its brand new 787-9 Dreamliner. Pros: friendly and professional service, great food, comfortable seats and plenty of entertainment. Cons: disappointing ground experiences, limited alcohol selection and no Wi-Fi.
You may not have heard of Gulf Air before, but the Bahrain-based airline turned a lot of heads when it unveiled a spectacular new business class it calls “Falcon Gold” in April 2018. In mid-June, Gulf Air launched this product on its flagship route from Bahrain (BAH) to London Heathrow (LHR).
Naturally, we had to test it out for ourselves to see what this carrier is all about. Turns out, the great seat and beautifully designed cabin weren’t even the best parts of the experience.
My wife (and TPG contributor), Katie, and I have been interested in the Gulf Air 787-9 business-class cabin since it was revealed. We couldn’t, however, quite figure out a time to fit it into our busy travel schedule. Finally, on April 30 — the last date of the partnership between American Airlines AAdvantage and Gulf Air — we found award availability in late July and booked it.
The nonstop flight from London Heathrow to Bahrain would’ve cost 42,500 AAdvantage miles, but with the AAdvantage award chart charging the same number of miles from Europe to anywhere in what it considers the region of the Indian subcontinent, we figured we would add an onward flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Then, to save hundreds of dollars of taxes and fees, we tacked on a short hop from Dublin (DUB) to London Heathrow on the front end of the award trip. In all, the three business-class flights, totaling 12 hours and 40 minutes in business class, cost 42,500 miles one-way plus $98 in taxes and fees each.
While you can’t use AAdvantage miles to book these awards anymore, AA wasn’t the last option available to US mileage collectors. You can still use Cathay Pacific Asia Miles to redeem for Gulf Air award flights. The one-way award from London Heathrow to Bahrain costs 50,000 Asia Miles.
There are four main ways to amass Asia Miles: American Express Membership Rewards (with a 48-hour transfer time), Citi ThankYou points (a transfer time of under 24 hours), Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints (a three-day transfer time) and the Cathay Pacific Visa Signature Card. And it’s possible to get enough Asia Miles for a round-trip on this route by signing up for the Platinum Card® from American Express through the CardMatch Tool and transferring the 100,000 welcome bonus to Asia Miles. (Offer subject to change at anytime)
We arrived at a rainy London Heathrow after our overnight layover, approaching the Terminal 4 check-in counter just within two hours of the 10:00am departure. The economy line was packed and chaotic, but the Falcon Gold check-in line was empty. Two desks were available for this line: one for business class and the other marked “Flight Supervisor.”
The agent at the flight-supervisor desk called us forward, and we had to climb over other passengers’ bags to reach the counter. Although informative, the check-in experience felt simply transactional, lacking the service element we’d end up getting during the rest of our Gulf Air experience. The agent seemed annoyed that we didn’t already have a boarding pass for this flight and our onward leg from Bahrain to Colombo. But she would only end up printing our boarding pass for the London-Bahrain flight with instructions to get our onward boarding pass in Bahrain — which would end up being a 45-minute ordeal.
London Heathrow security lived up to its reputation for being slow. The fast-track security line had just eight passengers ahead of us but still took seven minutes to clear. A few minutes later, we were in Gulf Air’s Falcon Gold Lounge.
We were warmly greeted by several lounge agents within the first few minutes of entering the lounge. As we headed to get breakfast, a lounge agent collected our coffee orders and relayed them to the bar. She delivered these drinks to our seats a few minutes later.
The lounge offered an impressive selection of food from both a hot buffet (ful medames, baked beans, grilled mushrooms, scrambled eggs, porridge, cheese toast, potato rosti, beef sausage) and a cold buffet.
The lounge was broken down into small sections, utilizing beaded curtains to provide a bit of privacy. With few of them in the lounge, passengers were each able to take their own section.
The Gulf Air lounge was excellent, particularly for an outstation lounge: friendly service, great food, helpful amenities like luggage lockers, shower rooms and a wide selection of newspapers and magazines.
As we started to leave the lounge 15 minutes before boarding to claim our place in line, the lounge check-in agent noted that boarding hadn’t started and said we could wait in the lounge if we wanted. It seemed like that was the plan for many business-class travelers, so we were surprised to see a long line of passengers at the business-class boarding queue.
We helped a gate agent figure out what was going on: The economy passengers were lining up in the wrong spot. She made an announcement, and the line in front of the business class sign quickly dissipated, leaving not a single passenger.
After the boarding-pass scan, all passengers were given the chance to grab a magazine or newspaper from the complimentary newsstand. Business-class passengers could choose from another tray of magazines once on board.
The aircraft for this flight was Gulf Air’s second Boeing 787-9 (registration A9C-FB, MSN39997), which took to the sky for the first time on June 5, 2018, and arrived in Bahrain on its delivery flight on June 14. In other words, it was brand-spanking-new.
Judging by the flight history for Gulf Air Flights 1 (BAH-LHR) and 2 (LHR-BAH), the airline is assigning its newest Dreamliner to this out-and-back. On Gulf Air’s 787-9 Dreamliner inaugural flight on June 15, it utilized its first Dreamliner (A9C-FA) before switching to its second aircraft (A9C-FB) within days of delivery. Effective July 31, its third Dreamliner (A9C-FC) took over the flight; this aircraft first arrived in Bahrain on July 29.
Seat and Cabin
The business-class cabin is arranged with four rows of 2-2-2 seating.
While this six-wide configurations forced the airline to cram in somewhat narrow seats (22 inches between armrests), using the entire forward cabin of the 787-9 for just four rows meant a bunch of space for each seat there.
Window-seat pairs are offset to allow a 13-inch gap so window-seat passengers could access their seats directly from the aisle. Despite the 2-2-2 configuration, each passenger has direct aisle access — this is the same biz-class setup you’ll find on other carriers such as Korean Air’s 747-8 and some of Japan Airlines’ long-haul 777 and 787 fleet.
Despite the large opening from the aisle to the aisle seats, rows were offset — and seat shells were strategically placed — so that you had to strain to see passengers across the aisle.
In fact, the seats and cabin are so well-designed for privacy that you can hardly tell there were 18 passengers in the cabin in this elevated shot taken midflight:
Both the window-seat pairs and middle seats are great for couples. The middle seats aren’t offset at all, making it the easiest for sharing the flight with a special someone.
Despite the staggered seats, Katie and I found the window-seat pairs to be perfectly fine for a couple to enjoy the experience together.
If it’s privacy you’re looking for, a middle divider could be raised by either passenger. This wasn’t perfect, though: I could still see the top of Katie’s head when the divider was raised.
Which row should you choose? This time we were in Row 3, but I’d choose Row 2 next time. Row 1 is squeezed a bit by the curvature of the plane, Row 3 is missing a window (two instead of three) and Row 4 is right next to the boarding door, with passengers passing behind the Row 4 seats to access the far side of the plane.
Seat controls are located on the outside armrest, next to the window for window seats and next to the aisle for aisle seats. There’s a range of seat settings and features, including a massage function that both of us enjoyed. Confusingly though, the preset seat configuration wasn’t the correct setting for takeoff and landing.
When extended all the way flat, my aisle seat measured 76 inches from the shell of the seat to the deepest part of the footwell. But tall passengers rejoice: The window seat has space for days. My measuring tape couldn’t measure it all, so I had to add two measurements together. When I did, I assumed I’d made an error. Sure enough, measuring again confirmed 90 inches from shell to the deepest part of the footwell. The downside with this space: There’s a gap between the end of the extended seat and the drop-down footrest, which some passengers could find bothersome.
Depending on what you wanted to keep at hand, the seat is a bit light on storage. There is one long (30-inch-by-2.5-inch) storage well in the middle console. In front of that well, there’s a literature pocket that was already pretty full of magazines and the safety card. Further ahead of that is another 10-inch-by-2.75-inch pocket stocked with a bottle of water and the amenity kit. While the main storage well was good for a cell phone, small camera, passport and boarding pass, there was no easy storage for a larger device like a laptop.
You could set the IFE to sleep mode, which asked if you wanted a crew member to wake you for meals and the drink service.
Besides a bottle of lotion and some paper cups, the lavatories are your standard Dreamliner touchless bathrooms. Mostly.
The bidet is the one major difference.
Upon boarding, each seat was stocked with an amenity kit and a bottle of water in the front storage well; a plastic-wrapped pair of headphones in the main storage well; a plastic-wrapped blanket in the storage area under the footwell; and a pillow on the seat.
The leather, magnetic-latch Cerruti amenity kit included a pair of soft but thin cotton socks, an eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste, mouthwash, body lotion (Aigner fragrance), lip balm (Aigner Fragrance) and refresher mist (also Aigner fragrance).
The in-flight entertainment screens measured an impressive 21.5 inches diagonally and had crisp resolution. In addition to the main screen, there was a sizable 5-inch diagonal screen on the IFE remote in the center console. As the main screen was effectively out of reach, the large size of this remote allowed for easy browsing.
In total, the IFE system offered 60 movies — including 10 Hollywood movies all released in 2018; 15 channels of TV programming, each with a selection of shows like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Prison Break,” “The X-Files” and “This Is Us;” a diverse collection of 54 albums from Arabic music to Aerosmith, Bob Dylan to Calvin Harris and Miles Davis to Miley Cyrus; 19 games; and zero e-books, although there was an IFE category dedicated to them.
Even as someone who pretty much lives at 40,000 feet, I had no issues finding entertainment to fill the flight using the IFE system alone. Even then, flight attendants had eight magazines available (National Geographic and Wired were two that caught my eye).
Noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones were at each seat. The audio plug had three prongs, and the headphones were two-pronged, but this didn’t cause any audio issues. One-to-two prong adapters were available on request; one of these adapters was at my seat at boarding.
It was announced that headsets would be collected before landing, but FAs never passed through the business-class cabin to collect them.
Two USB ports and a universal power outlet can be found in the storage well between seats, but they’re so far down the well that I couldn’t get some chargers to reach. At least the USB power outlets charged my cell phone quickly enough.
When it was time for bed, you were supposed to flag down a flight attendant for a mattress pad and fitted sheet. I didn’t realize that this was an option, but one member of the cabin crew noticed me reclining my seat (as I was going to measure it) and offered to set up my seat for sleep. In addition to the mattress pad and folded sheet, she brought a second pillow and folded the comforter at the end, making the seat resemble a proper bed.
While not terribly thick, the mattress pad and fitted sheet helped make the seat feel more like a bed than a lie-flat seat.
Since the seat was set up for sleep, I figured I might as well test it. Climbing under the soft comforter, I feel asleep perhaps faster than I ever have on an aircraft. Before I knew it, my 20-minute power nap was over.
Katie and I both prefer to sleep on our sides. Although we were worried that the somewhat narrow seat would restrict us from being comfortable sleeping like this, we both found it quite comfortable.
Wi-Fi service wasn’t available on this flight.
Food and Beverage
The drink service started during boarding with a selection of lemon juice with mint, orange juice, water and Jacquart Champagne, which we found to be quite good. The FA happily offered another glass when we asked for its name.
While boarding was still ongoing, flight attendants handed out menus, followed by a choice of hot or cold towels. Shortly later, FAs passed through with a basket of dates and baklava, followed immediately by Arabic coffee. Before pushing back late because of air traffic, the chef came through and took lunch and drink orders and collected menus.
Once in the air, FAs handed out bowls of cool nuts and raisins with empty glasses. The flight attendants returned to pour wines straight from the bottle — a nice touch. There were just three wines to choose from: 2014 Sichel Bordeaux merlot and cabernet, 2013 Torti pinot nero Oltrepo Pavese, and Vina Chocalan Reserva cabernet sauvignon.
The starter choices included grilled prawn salad as well as diced cucumber and tomato served with hummus, tzatziki, ezme, radishes and olives; and lentil-and-tomato soup. They all came with bread.
Almost 30 minutes after the appetizers were served, the main dish was presented. Choices included roast beef with sweet-potato mash, steamed vegetables and gravy; chicken tikka masala; seafood saffron risotto; and a quiche with gorgonzola and caramelized onions — the dish that Katie chose.
I’ve found that there’s no better way of testing an airline’s catering than by ordering the red-meat option. So I selected the roast beef.
It wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead of being the roast beef Americans would assume, I was served a filet of beef. Cooked medium-well and very tender, the beef was deliciously complemented by a rich gravy and sweet potatoes. While it didn’t look great in my photos, it was an excellent dish.
As if that hadn’t been enough food already, the dessert trolley rolled through shortly later offering cheese, nuts, fruits, bread pudding, white-chocolate cheesecake and profiteroles.
The trolley was reset and brought back through the cabin with tea, coffee and cognac.
The final meal service was an oh-so-British afternoon tea: finger sandwiches, scones with Devonshire clotted cream and jam, and assorted pastries.
The sandwiches were well-prepared with slightly toasted bread that wasn’t at all soggy from the fillings. We found this service significantly better than a similar tea service that we had in British Airways Club World business class.
Overall, the food and beverage were excellently done. And the meals, drinks, desserts and snacks being served from a cart definitely added to the experience.
Although the ground experience in London and Bahrain were lacking, the service on board was top-notch. The crew greeted us at the boarding door with a friendly welcome and seemed to want to show us to our seats — which I spoiled by stopping to take a bunch of photos of the cabin.
Throughout the flight, the service was warm but always professional. Even though it was clear that we were together, the flight attendants never reached over me (in the aisle seat) to serve Katie. Instead, they’d use the seat opening to bring any service items to her. And this held true even when the serving cart would block a flight attendant from being able get to her seat — even if this meant patiently waiting for another FA to finish serving another seat to relay the item to them to deliver to Katie.
It was minor touches like this that showed that Gulf Air clearly had a service-oriented focus for its flight attendants. When I mentioned how much I appreciated it, one flight attendant, clearly relieved, let down her guard and admitted this was just her second flight. Until then, I’d have assumed she’d been doing it for years.
On its IFE, Gulf Air claims it’s the “first Middle East airline to introduce highly qualified and accredited in-flight Sky Chefs to serve our premium-class passengers.” Although Katie and I smirked when reading this during boarding, we ended up being absolutely delighted by the chef on our flight.
My first flight with Gulf Air was an impressive one. Of the 110 business- and first-class flights I’ve flown since 2015, this ranks up there with my Qatar business-class experience as the best service I’ve experienced. This was complemented by great food, nice amenities, a good entertainment selection and comfortable seats. As an airline from a semi-dry country, Gulf Air had a limited alcohol selection, but it still managed to provide quality options.
Still, Gulf Air could improve by adding Wi-Fi. And one place Gulf Air could certainly do better is the ground experience: Both the Heathrow check-in and the transfer-desk experience in Bahrain were big letdowns.
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