Printed headline: Gulf Air
In recent years, Gulf Air has been intent on carving out a niche for itself in the Middle East airline marketplace by focusing primarily on regional services. That policy will continue, but new additions to the fleet will also allow it to expand elsewhere, Chief Technical Officer Jamal Abdulrahman Hashim tells Alan Dron.
How will the influx of new aircraft change your fleet and your product?
Gulf Air has ordered Airbus A320neos and Boeing 787-9s to replace its current fleet. It’s an extremely challenging market these days with increased competition and other regional challenges. The strategy is to improve the product, not only by replacing the mature fleet but also by improving our services and performance, in particular, which will have a greater impact on the customer experience and satisfaction.
An average fleet-age of seven years is still relatively youthful. Why the emphasis on renewal?
The current fleet will be phased out gradually when the aircraft reach a mature age of 10-12 years and will be replaced with more fuel-efficient, modern and performance-enhancing fleet types.
How will your strategy evolve?
It began in 2018, both in strengthening our existing network but also in expanding further. In 2018, we opened seven new stations, including Sharm-el-Sheikh (Egypt), Baku (Azerbaijan) and Bangalore (India). We will continue this strengthening of the existing network by increasing frequencies and expanding it in 2019 and beyond. We’re focusing primarily on the Middle East region. We have one of the strongest networks in the region and very high frequencies, but we need to further expand there, so we’ll be opening a few more stations.
The greater range of the 787 (compared to the A330) means we can think of much farther destinations. I’m reluctant to mention routes, but as (CEO) Kresimir Kucko has previously indicated, it’s part of our strategy to explore the U.S. and China.
Gulf Air’s CEO indicated last November that you may retain your A330s after all. How would that affect your strategy?
We’re still studying the option of keeping the A330s or phasing them out. It seems the tendency is toward phasing out, as Gulf Air is embracing the strategy of adopting the boutique concept.
The idea is not to compete in size with major companies like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. We have selected the boutique option as our niche, meaning we’re of adequate size, but it’s a highly premium, top-quality product, which will give better personal service to our customers.
You signed a cooperation agreement with Etihad Airways last November and have announced that your pilots will receive simulator training in Abu Dhabi. Will that cooperation be extended?
Definitely. The signing was for pilot training, but we’re also strengthening our relationship with Etihad on much broader aspects, for example, commercial cooperation for a potential codeshare in the future. There may be other training, such as for engineers.
As far as maintenance is concerned, Etihad has always been a partner. We’ve had maintenance work done by Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies, which became Etihad Engineering. They are our largest neighboring engineering facility. Going forward, yes, there’s a potential for further and stronger links in the engineering and maintenance aspects, although nothing definite has been agreed on.
Gulf Air operates a tendering procedure anyway, so we can’t single-source anybody, but I can say Etihad is very much favored due to its wide experience, geographic convenience and our current relationship with them.
We do A checks on all the fleet, and we perform a 20-month check as well as a one-year check on the 787s.
At one point (2015-16), we undertook C checks in Bahrain, but now C checks and greater are undertaken with an outside MRO. However, part of our strategy is to improve our facilities to handle all the C and heavy checks ourselves.
Gulf Air is scheduled to receive 12 A320neos, 17 A321neos and 10 Boeing 787-9s by 2023. Will that reduce the amount of maintenance you undertake?
That helps. Of course, manufacturers have helped the industry by investing in better and more durable technology and hardware. A C check used to be done at 24 months; it’s now at 36 months. Heavy checks like D checks used to be done at five and 10 years; now we’re carrying them out in six and 12 years. That surely reflects positively on maintenance costs.
Modern aircraft and engines throw off huge amounts of data. How do you make use of that?
The maintenance cost concept has evolved from being reactive to proactive and preventative. These days, there are a lot of aircraft and engine health-monitoring systems that enable us to predict and be proactive in maintenance even before a fault occurs. That, along with the rigorous reliability program that Gulf Air has adopted for many years, has significantly improved the reliability of aircraft and engines and has significantly minimized ad hoc maintenance and the unexpected grounding of aircraft.
Gulf Air Fact File
Headquarters: Manama, Bahrain
Fleet: 32 aircraft, including Airbus A320s, A321neos, Boeing 787-9s
Destinations: Services 47 cities in