Middle Eastern carrier Gulf Air is driven by service standards and comfort, as demonstrated by its unique initiatives, sky beds, sky nannies and sky chefs, which were launched into to the carriers expanding network, in a bid to drive traffic to premium class whilst ensuring that each individual customer is looked after.
BTN caught up with Danny Barranger, Vice President Marketing and Sales, Gulf Air at WTM to discuss the carrier’s recent addition of direct flights from Dublin, Ireland to its hub in Bahrain, which has made history as the first ever scheduled long haul route from Ireland to the Middle East. Additionally, after an absence of more than eight years, the airline has recommenced non-stop flights to Johannesburg.
BTN: How is passenger uptake for the new routes to Dublin and Johannesburg?
DB: we are doing a lot of work with Ireland tourism from the Gulf. It has become a fantastic opportunity for us to generate tourism into Ireland. It has also been a gateway for the States - so there is tremendous opportunity. From the reaction from the Irish market this has definitely been the right decision.
As far as the Johannesburg route is concerned, if you look at the market coming in and out of South Africa now, it is absolutely heaving. The result is that since we opened bookings (6 weeks ago) the routes on Johannesburg are full.
BTN: Which routes are you looking to fly to in China and why is this an important market for you?
We are looking at several markets in China although this has not formally been announced. We are likely to fly to Shanghai or Beijing - most likely Shanghai.
There are a number of reasons why it is an important market for us - there is as you say potential on the construction for the building side - but also from a tourism perspective there is wonderful potential there and it is a trading centre.
BTN: Will the airline alliance trend repeat itself in the Middle East as it has in other regions?
DB: Abaresq is the only airline alliance in the middle east - whether that will grow into a full blown alliance or integrate itself into another alliance has yet to be seen but in the long term there is potentially a future for that.
BTN: How important is it to be a member of an airline alliance in today’s marketplace?
DB: Gulf Air’s strategy is to look at our route network and then work with those particular airlines that can add additional services and passengers into our network - so we have a lot of code share agreements with a lot of partners including Qantas, AA, BMI If at some point we do join and these are the ones that overlay where we have got an agreement already - fantastic - but the key for us with those code share alliances is that we drive traffic to our network. So it’s important to be a member of an alliance, but its not all encompassing.
BTN: Is there room for more airlines in the Middle East?
DB: I hope not - competition is good but its not so much a question of how many airlines there are - it’s more a question of what do these airlines want to be. We are very clear about our strategy - we want to be a world-class airline- we are really focusing on the market that we know best, which is the Middle East and the Gulf. Some of the airlines in the Middle East want to be the biggest in the world - that’s not Gulf Air - but we do want to be the best at what we do.
BTN: Will the low cost model will prevail in the Middle East?
DB: Obviously a key element for low cost airlines is in driving down their costs. There are low cost airlines but with a different business model. The big difference in the Middle East is there are no regional airports, which offer a big relief as far as cost is concerned - all airlines are flying into the major airports. Some of them don’t focus purely on internet sales going through traditional distribution channels can be costly - so we are not quite seeing the same model. I think in the short term there won’t be a lot of development on that but in the long term - there is a lot of potential.
BTN: Where is Gulf Air in terms of the implementation of e-ticketing? Will you hit IATA’s target of for paperless tickets by 2007?
DB: We are going to reach that easily - we have already launched e-ticketing - we have a role out plan for the next 6 months to go totally ticketless - it has been a long term strategy anyway so we are right in the crux of now implementing it. It’s a very important development for us.
BTN: What are your thoughts on the arrival of mobile devices in-flight?
DB: It’s going to come. People are looking to provide different services and technologies that will make them stand out from their competitors. We do want to invest time and money in services that will benefit the customer, but they have to be advances that will save the customer time and money - rather than just fancy gadgetry that will just cost us money but would not be beneficial. So therefore looking at elements that would be beneficial to the customer but realistic in implementation and cost. You will see a lot more on Internet and mobile on aircraft - we are already starting to see that happen.
BTN: What was the thinking behind your initiatives - sky beds, sky chefs and sky nannies?
DB: The interesting thing about looking at your service is to really try to identify those service elements that are going to differentiate your service from your competitors so when we looked at sky nannies, sky beds and sky chefs - that is what we were looking to do. While travel has opened up a lot of opportunities - it has meant that more families fly We did a lot of research into child behaviour - and what we could do to make the experience better for families and for other families sitting on the aircraft - and it has been a phenomenal success - people have really noticed what just a little bit of care and attention can bring in understanding child behaviour - keeping the children more occupied and actually giving relief to parents as well on the long journey - it can be stressful for everyone.
Regarding our sky beds and chefs, we identified the fact that a key market for us to focus on is the premium traffic. Our aim was to actually make business travellers want to travel, therefore to give them a product they really want. We spent over 12 months researching the sky beds before we launched our new seats which have won us many awards in 1st and business class - the seat factor is going up. It’s all about really looking at the comfort factor and the sleep factor - that’s what people remember. People should arrive feeling refreshed and relaxed after a long journey. Additionally the five star chefs have been an outstanding success, helping us raise in-flight dining levels to new heights.