Not quite there: A review of Kuwait Airways in economy on the 777 from Kuwait to London
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Great seats with excellent headrests on a new plane, authentic Arabic food and very affordable cash fares
A cramped new airport in Kuwait and forgettable service
Emirates, Etihad, Qatar. These three Middle Eastern airlines are household names with renowned products and service. But there are other, lesser-known airlines in the Gulf region that are fighting for the same global brand recognition that the so-called ME3 enjoy. One of them is Kuwait Airways, the flag carrier of the State of Kuwait.
It operates a fleet of 30 aircraft, a fraction of those of some of its Gulf rivals, but it has an interesting long-haul route network using mostly new Boeing 77s to connect between Europe and Asia via its only hub in Kuwait City. It also has a single route to North America, to New York-JFK.
I knew little about the airline other than that no alcohol is served on board, in line with Kuwait’s prohibition on alcohol. On a recent visit to Kuwait to see if there were enough activities to keep an average tourist entertained, I jumped at the chance to try one of the airline’s flagship routes.
(TPG is aware of the airline’s discriminatory policies towards travelers holding passports from Israel, who are barred from its flights. We do not condone such behavior, and this review does not constitute an endorsement of this policy.)
Kuwait Airways has its own loyalty program, Oasis Club, which does not partner with any other airlines. As I had no Oasis Club miles, having never flown the airline, I looked at cash tickets.
I only needed a one-way ticket back to London. Kuwait Airways had extremely reasonable one-way cash fares on the nonstop from Kuwait (KWI) to London Heathrow (LHR). It regularly sells one-way fares for as low as $200 all-in for this almost-seven-hour flight, which is a great price for a full-service airline. British Airways charges more than twice as much for the exact same route.
A new competitor flying between the cities is low-cost Jazeera Airways, which operates a cramped, narrow-body A320neo to London Gatwick (LGW). Its fares are cheaper than Kuwait Airways, as you’d expect given the lack of frills, but only around 20% to 25%.
I paid for the flight with The Platinum Card® from American Express with its generous 5x points on purchases made directly with airlines. This earned 1,000 Membership Rewards points, worth around $20, by TPG’s valuations. This effectively reduced the price of this flight by 10%, making a cheap fare even cheaper.
I was excited to arrive at a gleaming, new Terminal 4 at Kuwait International Airport, the home of Kuwait Airways. There are truly spectacular airport designs in the Gulf, so I hoped for the same from Kuwait’s primary airport.
Once I found the check-in desks covering my London flight, I was quickly checked in by a friendly and efficient agent.
Next to the desks for my flight was Kuwait’s premium check-in area. Other than being separated by glass walls, it didn’t seem to be very private or special. The airline could have created a more premium experience in its new terminal design.
Security was quick, but once I passed into the gate lounge areas, I realized there was a significant problem: The new terminal is already too small. It has only been open about a year, but the downstairs gate areas are already bursting at the seams, thanks to the narrow walkways and limited seating.
Look how close the gate seating is to the cafe seating and boarding gate in this photo.
It made priority boarding almost impossible at the cramped gate areas. Can you imagine trying to board 200 passengers through this tiny maze?
There was no lounge access included with my Kuwait Airways economy ticket, and I looked in briefly at the Priority Pass lounge.
Like the rest of the downstairs section of the terminal, it was small and cramped. There was a sea of people trying to navigate more tiny walkways, dealing with luggage and plates of food and hot drinks and struggling to find seats. It was as relaxing as a city train station during rush hour.
This photo reflects the quietest time I witnessed.
Upstairs in the terminal, at the gate for my flight, there was slightly more space. More thought had clearly been given to the several hundred people who would be waiting for a flight at the same time.
Our flight, like the Kuwait Airways New York-JFK flight leaving at the next gate, had a cordoned-off gate area. This may have been because of additional security measures, which in this case meant explosives swab tests for every passenger.
Still, our gate area wasn’t really big enough for the number of people using it. There were far more seats on the Boeing 777-300ER we were about to board than at Gate 2.
TPG’s Alberto Riva reviewed Kuwait Airways in 2018 and had an awful experience at the old KWI terminal. It was nice to have a shiny new terminal, but it’s already nearing capacity.
The boarding area may have been crowded, but was laid out well.
Boarding started on time with one row for priority passengers and another for all other passengers.
Cabin and Seat
Economy passengers boarded through Door 2, which allowed a peek at the second business-class cabin, laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration. These seats are the same as most of United’s Boeing 767s and 787s, for example, and are fine for a day flight of six hours but hardly industry-leading for longer overnight flights. There is little privacy and storage, and window passengers don’t have direct aisle access.
In the two large economy cabins, the deep-blue-and-white color scheme is elegant and smart.
I was pleased to see Kuwait has decided on a more spacious 3-3-3 configuration on their 777s like Turkish Airlines. Many other airlines like Air New Zealand, Etihad and Emirates have gone with the denser 3-4-3 layout.
The window shades were closed for boarding to keep the cabin cool in the Kuwaiti sun.
I had a window seat, always my preference for an economy flight review, as it provides a little more privacy for taking photos.
Legroom is 32 inches, which is about as good as one can hope for in economy — some full-service airlines have 31 inches on the same plane — and there was plenty of room for my 6-foot frame; my knees were not crushed.
The seat features a bifold table. I like these tables because you can open half, which is great when you just need a small shelf for, say, a drink and snack and still want to be able to grab things from around your feet.
The headrests are excellent. They adjust up and down several inches, great for tall or short passengers.
The sides of the headrests can be twisted up more than 45 degrees.
This provided plenty of different sleeping positions. Facing forward, I could lean my head heavily to one side and it would be supported fully — the folded-up sides did not droop the entire flight.
If I sat with my knees to the side, I could nestle my head into this space and stay cozy and comfortable while keeping my neck straight.
I’ve flown plenty of airlines with economy seats that have adjustable headrests, but almost all of them drooped back to their original position quickly after I leaned my head on them — I’m looking at you, Virgin Atlantic Premium! These headrests may end up drooping over time, but until then I’m seeking them out whenever possible!
The spacious bathrooms were clean and there was never a wait for them on this lightly loaded flight.
Amenities and IFE
A flimsy pillow was on my seat.
Blankets were handed out just after takeoff. I liked the bright blue color.
In the seatback pocket was the standard inflight magazine, duty-free mag, sick bag, safety card and headphones.
The high-resolution seatback screen offered plenty of movies and TV shows. The selection was as good as on British Airways.
Wi-Fi was reliable but fairly slow and really expensive. You could purchase hourly blocks at a rate of $20 per hour. The $40-for-four-hours package was better value.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
With a 10 a.m. departure, I wasn’t sure if we would get breakfast or lunch. Menus were handed out (always a win in economy) showing lunch would be the main meal of the flight, with a choice of chicken ouzi, shrimp murabyan or vegetarian souffle. I was excited to see the two local dishes on the menu; I love it when an airline promotes its own culture rather than just offering the bog-standard red meat with potatoes or white meat with rice.
I had the chicken ouzi, which was great; the sauce had a rich flavor and the rice was light and fluffy. I also loved the little touches like the side salad that was more like a miniature Arabic mezze and the Arabic bread served along with a standard roll. I enjoyed the local food during my time in the region, so it was great to have one last hit before heading back to Europe.
The dessert was a mango-and-almond pudding. I was offered non-alcoholic drinks with my meal. I asked for a Diet Coke and received the whole can — branded Coca-Cola Light, which is found in several countries outside the US.
The meal came with a sealed cup of water. Hard to open, and it can potentially spill everywhere.
The flight was around an hour shorter than a New York-to-London flight and I expected the second meal to be small, but it turned out to be only a light snack of tea or coffee and a single piece of cake. It was disappointing, compared with the first meal.
Crew performed all required tasks but that was about it.
The crew was quite forgettable. The flight attendants did nothing wrong but nothing memorable, either. They weren’t particularly warm. In fact, they were quite robotic. Call bells were quickly answered and requests fulfilled, but without a smile or a “Here you are, sir.”
The crew didn’t exhibit the same pride or enthusiasm you see on carriers like Emirates and Singapore Airlines. Kuwait doesn’t fly to the same number of far-flung destinations as the ME3, so perhaps operating to London every week becomes dull and repetitive for the crew.
There was nothing bad about the experience, but measuring it against competitors like Emirates and Qatar, it didn’t blow me away. Still, at the prices Kuwait Airways charges, it’s a solid option from Europe to the Middle East or Asia: full service at an almost-low-cost price.
With a better airport experience, larger network and more motivated crew, Kuwait Airways could be a world-class airline — if it got rid of its discriminatory policies against Israeli passengers. They have a lot of the basics right, but i wouldn’t seek them out over the ME3.
All photos by the author.
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