For several years now, Gulf Air executives have been talking about plans for the airline to resume flights to the United States. This is now one step closer to becoming a reality.
Gulf Air is undergoing a transformation
Bahrain-based Gulf Air used to be the biggest and most global airline in the Gulf region. This was when politics in the region were different, and before we saw the development of airlines in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, etc.
Over the past decade, Gulf Air has largely struggled to compete with its peers in the region. The airline had an outdated fleet, and didn’t have a global route network. However, the airline has spent the past few years undergoing a major transformation, whereby the airline has modernized its fleet, opened a new terminal at its hub, and has focused on its core strengths.
For example, Gulf Air’s long haul fleet now consists primarily of Boeing 787-9s, featuring excellent Apex Suites in business class. The airline has seven of these in its fleet, with a further three to be delivered.
That’s not all — the airline is also taking delivery of 16 Airbus A321neos (including some “LR” variants), and some of these feature fully flat beds in business class, which is awesome for regional flights. The airline is certainly becoming a more appealing option, though as of now the carrier only flies as far West as London, and as far East as Manila.
Gulf Air wants to resume flights to the US
For some background, in 2019, former Gulf Air CEO Kresimir Kucko stated that the airline wanted to launch flights to the United States within three years:
“We will be operating in the coming years more in Europe and also the Far East. Hopefully, in the coming two, maximum three years, we would be able to open flights to the US.”
The airline flew to New York and Houston back in the day (if I recall correctly, Gulf Air actually flew from Bahrain to New York to Houston), though that route was cut over 25 years ago. Currently the airline operates flights exclusively to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
While the pandemic probably slowed down Gulf Air’s ambitions to return to the United States, this could very well become a reality again in the coming months. Recently Gulf Air filed with the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), requesting a foreign air carrier permit.
In the filing, Gulf Air stated that it “anticipates launching non-stop service from Bahrain to the United States upon receipt of all required government approvals.”
There has been speculation about whether Gulf Air would fly to New York or Houston. Logically you’d think that if Gulf Air were to resume flights, New York would be the obvious choice, given that it’s where just about every airline seems to want to fly. However, Bahrain’s oil minister has also stated that the country is looking at developing closer ties with Houston, and was looking at setting up a nonstop flight.
We now have a pretty strong indication of where the airline will fly to, as Gulf Air has a job posting for an airport manager at New York JFK. The New York flight would cover a distance of around 6,600 miles.
I’d love to see this happen, especially with Air Canada and Gulf Air having a partnership. This would be a great way to redeem miles for travel between the United States and the Middle East (and beyond).
How does Gulf Air expect to succeed in the US?
Is Gulf Air considering resuming United States flights because the airline thinks it can actually make money flying here, or is this about prestige and business ties?
Gulf Air executives have historically recognized that the airline is more of a boutique carrier, and that’s the strength the company hopes to focus on. As the CEO at the time admitted:
“You can’t compete with airlines that are bigger in size, volume or with prices. You can only compete in quality. I can compete with any airline, no matter the size, with the quality of my product. That’s the battle I willingly participate with a chance to win.
We want to offer our passengers traditional Arabian hospitality. Which for that to really put true meaning into practice, you really need to offer something unique.”
I totally appreciate a CEO who wants to invest in the product, though he also acknowledged that his airline couldn’t compete in terms of schedule or price.
Keep in mind that pre-pandemic, a total of under two dozen passengers per day traveled between New York and Bahrain, so there isn’t sufficient demand for this route in terms of point-to-point traffic. So this would be all about connectivity, which also means the competition would be fierce.
The reality is that Gulf Air’s biggest competitors are also known for their excellent products, whether we’re talking about Emirates’ A380 business class or Qatar Airways’ Qsuites. I doubt Gulf Air is going to find that people are willing to pay a premium to fly Gulf Air over those airlines.
So adding service to the US doesn’t exactly seem like a money-making recipe. Then again, in many ways long haul economics are better than in the past, thanks to smaller, more fuel efficient planes, like the Dreamliner.
In 2019, Gulf Air announced plans to resume flights to the United States within a few years. I never take these kinds of announcements as a sure bet, since a lot can change, especially with the pandemic.
That being said, the airline has now filed with the US DOT requesting permission to launch flights to the United States, suggesting that the airline still intends to move forward with this plan. Furthermore, the airline is hiring an airport manager at New York JFK, leading me to believe that this is the airport that Gulf Air is eyeing.
If Gulf Air does resume flights to the United States, it seems like it wouldn’t be done to turn a direct profit (at least realistically) but rather to improve links between the two countries.
Do you think Gulf Air will follow through with launching flights to the United States?