I flew Gulf Air 787 business class en route to Bahrain as the second leg of my trip to the Middle East. I was looking forward to trying out one of Aeroplan’s newest partners and what looked to be an attractive Middle Eastern boutique carrier.
Gulf Air is one of the world’s oldest airlines, having been around for more than 70 years, and was one of the first commercial airlines to operate in the Middle East.
However, with the likes of Emirates and Qatar Airways rising in prominence in recent decades, Gulf Air has gradually become overlooked as the airline of choice in the region.
In 2018, the company rebranded itself in an effort to reclaim its position in the market over time. The Bahrain-based airline became focused on consistent quality and new technology, such as introducing the airline’s flagship aircraft: the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that I was about to fly today.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Booking
Since Gulf Air became Aeroplan’s latest partner airline in 2021, redeeming points for flying with Gulf Air has become much more feasible. There are currently relatively few other ways to book this product on points, with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles as only other notable airline partner.
A redemption will cost you 45,000 Aeroplan points for a one-way business class trip on one of the airline’s flagship routes between the Middle East and Europe.
That’s exactly how much I paid for the Frankfurt–Bahrain–Riyadh portion of my itinerary. In total, I paid 50,000 Aeroplan points: 45,000 points to get from Frankfurt to Riyadh, plus 5,000 points for the stopover in Bahrain. I consider this a very compelling Aeroplan sweet spot for a Europe–Middle East redemption in business class.
Furthermore, I made sure to pick a date on which the Frankfurt route was served by a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, since there are also some dates that it uses a narrow-body Airbus A321LR.
I scheduled the itinerary such that I’d have a very short layover in Frankfurt after flying a KLM short-haul flight from Amsterdam, which followed my Toronto–Amsterdam KLM business class flight.
Luckily, I made it to the airport with some time to spare, but I then decided to head directly to the gate rather than visiting the Primeclass Lounge (which is Gulf Air’s contract lounge for business class passengers, which looked rather weak).
Note that Gulf Air operates its own, much better Falcon Gold business class lounge for flights out of Bahrain, Dubai, and London Heathrow.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Cabin
Upon boarding, I discovered that some passengers were already in their seats. That’s because this flight operated as Paris–Frankfurt–Bahrain (a fifth-freedom flight), and I was boarding at the intermediate stop.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner cabin has a total of 26 business class seats, spread out across four rows in a 2-2-2 configuration. The seats are forward-facing, and each seat offers direct aisle access, in a layout known in the industry as “Apex Suites”.
Each seat has a strategically placed shell which makes it difficult to see other passengers, offering excellent privacy. The seat pitch for business class runs approximately 80–89 inches, which is around the industry standard.
In any Apex Suites configuration, the window seats are optimal for solo travellers, with unparalleled privacy once you raise the partition between you and your neighbour. There’s a private walkway linking the window seat to the aisle, which gives it a degree of privacy almost comparable to a First Class suite.
Meanwhile, the middle seats can be a good choice for those travelling together, as they are directly in line with one another while also offering direct aisle access at each seat.
Although the seats in Row 1 may provide slightly more space at the bulkhead, the window seats can also feel slightly narrow due to the curvature of the plane.
Furthermore, there can often be more activity at the bulkhead, such as flight attendants preparing for the meal service and passengers moving in and out of the restrooms.
I had assigned myself Seat 3A, and luckily, my neighbouring Seat 3C remained empty for the duration of the flight.
The Gulf Air business class cabin has beautiful finishes with a black and gold colour theme. The Gulf Air logo, a gold falcon, has accompanied the airline from the beginning and can be seen at the front of the cabin.
The cabin’s elegant appearance emphasizes warmth and luxury, while the Apex Suites themselves carry a fresh, clean, and simple design. Overall, the cabin visuals certainly reflect the airline’s new mission of modernity and progress.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Seat
The Apex Suite is considered to be one of the leading business class products in the world. These seats can also be found on Korean Air’s 747-8, Oman Air’s 787s and A330s, and some of Japan Airlines’s long-haul 777 and 787 fleets.
Underneath the 21.5-inch entertainment screen is an ottoman, which can be folded downwards into place.
A few small nooks for storage can be found on the inner side of the seat. These spaces are suitable for storing smaller electronics and items; however, larger devices such as laptops would not fit.
The seat controls are located on the outside armrests, offering a total of nine setting options. The top four buttons control the seat position, allowing you to deploy the seat into lie-flat mode. Additionally, there is a built-in massage function, which is one of the Apex Suite’s more luxurious features.
On the other side of the seat are four more controls, where you can raise the all-important partition to your neighbour, creating a truly private cocoon here by the windows.
The touch-screen entertainment remote is just above, and can be used to power most of the seat’s electronic features, including the Do Not Disturb indicator on the outer seat shell and the Boeing 787’s window shades.
The tray table is located on the inner side of each seat. The leather siding flips up, and you can pull out the tray table and then swivel it to your preference.
Lastly, a universal power outlet and two USB ports can be found just under the inside armrest.
I did take note that some parts of the seat were broken. One of the armrests was detached from the seat hardware, while others had noticeable paint chips, both of which are a bit surprising given the product’s polished look at first glance.
Furthermore, the power outlet was non-functional at both my seat and the neighbouring seat, although fortunately the USB ports still allowed me to charge some devices.
One final drawback of the Apex Suite is that even though there’s a great deal of privacy and personal space, there’s certainly a lack of storage room and practical storage compartments. I often found myself with not a lot of options to place my loose items and knick-knacks besides the small surfaces and crevices by my side.
That’s one of the common trade-offs among business class seat types, and it’s something to be aware of if you’re planning to fly with Gulf Air or another airline offering this seat type.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Amenities
Every member of the business class crew was doing something during the pre-takeoff sequence, and it was a somewhat hectic scene. I also noted that all the crew were dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) for this flight.
While boarding continued, I was served my choice of a warm or cold towel and a welcome beverage of mint lemonade upon arriving at my seat. Additionally, other crew members came around to serve Arabic coffee and dates as well.
A blanket and pillow were placed at each seat prior to boarding. Every seat was also pre-stocked with the amenity kit, a small bottle of water, and noise-cancelling headphones in the storage nooks.
The amenity kit had a nice local touch with its design, featuring the Al-Fateh Grand Mosque in Bahrain. It was jam-packed with useful amenities, such as cotton socks, an eye mask, earplugs, and the usual lip balm, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
The kit also included a full tube of Thann’s signature fragrance, but it wasn’t the best- or fanciest-smelling fragrance I’ve tried.
My meal order was taken prior to takeoff as well. The business class menu read as follows:
- 1 of 5
- 2 of 5
- 3 of 5
- 4 of 5
- 5 of 5
The service was orderly, warm, and highly respectful in a way that reminded me of some of Asia’s best airlines. For example, a crew member knelt at my seat upon taking meal orders, while the cabin manager also stopped by every passenger to introduce herself shortly before takeoff.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Meal Service
We enjoyed a smooth departure out of Frankfurt, and it wasn’t long before we were cruising above the clouds.
Lunch began shortly after reaching cruising altitude. My table was set, and the cutlery was placed down, by hand, one piece at a time.
Service started with some wine and nuts and was followed by an appetizer of smoked salmon on a bed of quinoa, which I thought was delicious and nicely presented. However, the pita bread on the side was stale and cold.
Unfortunately, my first choice for the main course of beef fillet was no longer available, presumably because many passengers originating in Paris had ordered it. I therefore settled for the chicken brioche instead.
The chicken brioche was on the dry side, and needed a lot of sauce to go down easily. Furthermore, the presentation wasn’t quite as well-executed as the earlier appetizer dish. Still, it was tasty enough to finish, even though I wasn’t overly hungry.
The meal service concluded with a rather average slice of cake, a fruit dish, and some black tea.
As much as I wanted to be impressed, the Gulf Air business class meal service didn’t blow me away. It got off to a great start with the appetizer, but the main course fell flatter in its delivery, and I’d characterize the onboard catering as good, but not necessarily great.
Service-wise, the crew were proactive and attentive, repeatedly offering to top-up my drinks throughout the meal. I had to decline further wine pours a few times, given my fatigue at this point in the journey.
However, despite the Gulf Air crew’s best efforts to replicate the impeccable service style of, say, Qatar Airways or Etihad Airways – for example, with the way that cutlery and plates are placed and withdrawn one at a time – I thought they still had some way to go until they reached their fellow Middle Eastern carriers’ level of polish.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Entertainment
Among Gulf Air’s recent brand improvements, the airline has implemented a newer-generation in-flight entertainment system (IFE), with high-definition monitors and a responsive user interface thanks to the Thales AVANT IFE.
However, my main entertainment screen wasn’t showing anything during the selection process, so I could only pick what to watch via the small handheld controller.
Gulf Air’s selection of film and TV titles is wide-ranging enough for a seven-hour journey (which is just about the longest flight duration among its routes), but isn’t quite as expansive as some of the world’s leading carriers.
Wi-Fi is available on Gulf Air flights, and I purchased a Smart plan for US$15 to stay connected during the rest of the journey.
Gulf Air 787 Business Class – Bed
The business class restroom was a fairly standard size for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, with a couple of amenities and a baby changing table.
These restrooms are designed to be touchless, aside from the water temperature control, amenities, and paper cups. Additionally, Gulf Air’s onboard restrooms come with a bidet feature, in line with Islamic hygiene principles.
I returned back to my seat and napped for a few hours. The Apex Suite is fairly comfortable in lie-flat mode, as there’s ample room for both your shoulders and your legs.
Indeed, I was very happy with my legroom, as there aren’t any neighbouring seat shells to get in the way of your tossing and turning while you rest.
Gulf Air does also offer turndown service onboard with a mattress topper and comforter, though such was my exhaustion at this point that I didn’t think to ask for it.
Indeed, I was very tired at this point in the journey, so even though I would’ve loved to sample the airline’s pre-arrival dining option of “light sandwiches and snacks,” I was both too sleepy and not overly inspired by the first meal to give it a go.
When I woke up, I noticed that night had fallen outside, and we were a couple minutes out from making our descent, eventually completing an evening touchdown in Bahrain at 7pm local time.
Gulf Air is a nifty, boutique Middle Eastern airline option that we can now book with Aeroplan points. It’s a potentially useful routing option en route to other destinations in the region, as well as further points afield like the Maldives, India, or Thailand.
Indeed, Gulf Air can be a great way to see the small Gulf nation of Bahrain via a layover or stopover as well – enhanced further by a great lounge and ground experience in Bahrain, which we’ll cover in the next installment.
However, the airline doesn’t quite live up to the same hyped-up standards as its regional rivals like Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates at this stage in the game. The impressive hard product is let down by imperfect upkeep, while the onboard food and service didn’t quite hit the highest of high notes that airlines from this region are known for.
Having undergone a brand transformation as recently as 2018, it’ll take some time for Gulf Air to catch up to its rivals’ lofty standards, but the boutique airline has gotten off to a strong start and can only get better as it refines its product and expands its route network.