Nicholas Chrisostomou road tests Gulf Air’s FALCON GOLD class, aboard one of the historic Middle Eastern carrier’s new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners

The national carrier of the Kingdom of Bahrain was the first commercial airline to be established in the Middle East, many decades before the likes of Emirates and Qatar Airways, which currently dominate the region. Very much a legacy carrier, Gulf Air revolutionised travel in the region and quickly became synonymous with Bahrain.

Flying from its hub in Manama for almost seventy years (the airline will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2020), Gulf Air currently serves 47 destinations in 27 countries spanning three continents, transported more than 5 million passengers last year, and continuously acts as an ambassador for the kingdom and a catalyst for Bahrain’s economic growth.

Given its geographical advantage for connecting flights between far-flung places, there are very few of us international travellers who haven’t passed through Bahrain’s busy airport at some stage, particularly in the 70s and 80s when Gulf Air dominated the region’s skies and only one of its three neighbours had a fledgling national airline (Emirates).

Back in the airline’s early days, Britain’s flag carrier British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) becoming a major shareholder in Gulf Aviation meant that by the 1970s, Bahrain had the most developed airline infrastructure in the region. This prompted Oman, U.A.E. and Qatar to invest in the Bahraini airline, creating multinational carrier Gulf Air, which quickly grew to dominate the Middle Eastern skies at a time when air travel was becoming increasingly popular.

But at the beginning of this millennium, Oman, U.A.E. and Qatar pulled out of Gulf Air and instead pumped vast amounts of money into their own national airlines. Emirates had already overtaken Gulf Air as the region’s most well-known airline. Etihad and Qatar Airways copied Emirates’ business model. This left Gulf Air lagging behind its regional aviation competitors for some years. But the Bahraini airline now has a new strategy for growth, a new CEO (Krešimir Kučko) and has committed to buying dozens of new aircraft in the coming years. And since Gulf Air knows that it cannot compete on scale or price with its more cash-rich aviation neighbours, the airline is instead looking to exceed them in terms of customer satisfaction and product quality. Indeed, the overarching theme of the airline’s recent rebranding (courtesy of Saffron Consultants) channels Gulf Air’s focus on innovation and the genuine warmth of the Bahraini people, gave the brand a modern lift and raised the quality of its customer experience. And the Gulf Air fleet’s new livery celebrates the airline’s impressive heritage.

Gulf Air is introducing new destinations yearly (Malaga and Salalah launch this month) and the airline is actively pushing into Western Europe. In Q4, Gulf Air will open a slick new deluxe terminal at Bahrain Airport, complete with what is rumoured to be a game-changing premium lounge. And last year, the airline unveiled its new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner premium cabin, which debuted on its Bahrain London route: Falcon Gold.

Offering a first class feel at a business class fare, the introduction of its slick new Falcon Gold cabin is very much an evolution for the Middle Eastern carrier and brought Gulf Air’s premium product into line with its regional competitors.

Fashioned by internationally renowned design consultancy Tangerine, which took care of all elements of the new inflight experience, Gulf Air’s Falcon Gold product is distinctly different to the likes of Emirates and Qatar Airways, in that it offers something of an amalgamation of first and business classes, inspired by a fusion of Bahrain’s heritage and its modern spirit of today.

Whilst the in-flight service is distinctly business-like, the private capsule-like space afforded to Falcon Gold passengers is reminiscent of a top cabin class. And despite a 2-2-2 configuration in the 26-seat Falcon Gold cabin, every passenger has direct aisle access.

Defined by a sweeping almond gold trim that draws the eye, the capsule is very well-designed, with plenty of nooks, pockets, shelves and storage areas to keep valuables close-by and tuck away cabin baggage. I was travelling with a computer case and a fairly large holdall, both of which cosily fit underneath the large footrest, meaning that I didn’t need to put anything in the overhead bins. It made a very pleasant change to not have to stow anything out of easy reach. Whilst there’s a clothes hook within the capsule, the friendly crew were only too happy to take away and hang my suit carrier.

Rich, dark brown leathers, evocative of a falconry glove, have been used on the seat headrests, arm caps and the footstool, all of which are beautifully stitched and detailed, creating a contemporary finish. Married with brushed gold accents, patterned dark brown velvet walls and elegant detailing makes for a sleek and visually sophisticated ensemble. And textured, raised privacy panels dividing the capsules, sporting 3D sculpted surfaces, create private, intimate zones.

Whilst the huge 22” screen at one end of the capsule was almost certainly the largest I had seen in this class, the entertainment offering was disappointingly limited to just movies, although the selection did include some Hollywood blockbusters.
The large, sturdy fold-out table swivels to allow for easy exit and access from the seat without having to put-away a laptop, for instance. Dual USB sockets plus a universal power outlet in a pocket beside the seat provide plenty of opportunity to power and re-charge items in-flight.

Whilst the wine selection was a little limited, I found a very palatable Sancerre to sip. Overall, the meal service was good and the food quality high. What some dishes may have lacked in finesse was more than made-up for by generous portions and excellent, confident flavours. Not to mention warm and efficient service. And I loved that dessert was served on a traditional wheeled trolley, as was the British-style afternoon tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream.

The piece de resistance of travelling in Falcon Gold class is the length of the bed once the chair is in the fully-flat position. I’m 6ft and there was still plenty of room past my feet, even when I lay completely flat. And the sleeping position was very comfortable, with a decent quality pillow and substantial duvet-like blanket complemented by a mattress pad and fitted sheet. Relative privacy is also afforded to sleeping Falcon Gold passengers, since the capsule’s design effectively shades the head and upper body area from the view of others. A window seat is the one to book, thanks to a flip-down foot rest which gives window-side passengers the most bed space.

With a new identity rooted in the airline’s historic heritage while also creating a modern aesthetic that is distinctively Bahraini, it is apparent that every touch point visible to a Falcon Gold passenger has been carefully considered. The result is an opulent and luxurious flying experience which undoubtedly heralds a new era for the Middle East’s original luxury carrier.

Nicholas Chrisostomou travelled in Falcon Gold class from Bahrain to London Heathrow in April 2019