Gulf Air soars where others fear to fly

September 18, 2011

Generosity is not a slight word at Gulf Air Kabul airport reception

Towering head and shoulders over the crowd at Kabul airport VIP section, Ahmed Al Anzour was living up to his reputation. A longtime iconic figure of dedication to Gulf Air achievements, the PR head was making sure that the reception to mark the inaugural flight of the company into the Afghani capital was perfect for all, hosts, guests and the media.

Not even the unusually high level of preparedness by the team he led at the airport and in the city could make him feel at ease until the ceremony was over and everyone left the premises content and pleased.

A lot went into the preparation and into the organization of the maiden flight. He was not a leader to fall into self-complacency.

Earlier on the day in Manama when I told my wife at the last minute that I was going to Kabul, her first question was “Is it safe?” she asked. I did not know. But I promptly suggested that “Of course, it is safe. Otherwise, Gulf Air would not have launched the flight.”

She grimaced, not wholly convinced, but tried hard to flash into a smile, fully aware that it would be useless to argue with me on the issue.

At the Bahrain airport, I looked for my three companions and Samer Majali, Gulf Air Chief Executive Officer, who were supposed to be part of the brave people to take the inaugural flight.

David Bloomer was there, holding on to his cherished radio microphone and tape recorder, his most favourite tools for so many years. He smiled and waved. As enthusiastic as ever. David is no stranger to danger or controversy. In November last year, he and four other Britons were on the Kingdom Of Bahrain when it was stopped by Iranian naval vessels as it sailed from Bahrain to Dubai to take part in the 360-mile Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race.

Ihab showed up, but Nader did not.

And then, Samer Majali walked to the counter. With great pain.

“Sorry. I really wanted to go, but I had an accident and I cannot walk easily,” he said as the 94 passengers on the maiden flight were making their way into the aircraft. His foot was swollen and he could hardly move.

But his enthusiasm remained as pronounced as ever. “We are glad to launch the flight to Kabul. Gulf Air has been moving forward with its programme to reach out to specific cities.”

Kabul on June 15, Nairobi on July 1 and Copenhagen on July 4. Months ago, nobody had expected the cash-strapped company to fly its way back to profitability. But against all odds, the airline is recovering.

“We are moving according to schedule and we will not change the dates. We have plans to have other destinations, and these will be announced later,” he said.

Gulf Air resumed its flights to Beirut on June 22 after it suspended them following a political standoff.

“The results for the Beirut route will take some time now because most people made their arrangements for the summer weeks ago. But we are confident the route will be profitable,” he said.

The Kabul route will be a good opportunity to reinforce the company’s network, he said.

“The service to Afghanistan, which we announced this March, took off as planned following the completion of extensive safety and security audits. This reinforces the airline’s leadership position once again as we become the first ‘full-service’ scheduled commercial carrier in the Middle East to connect to Afghanistan.”

Gulf Air’s strategy towards recovery and profitability includes connecting Bahrain with niche and under-served markets in the region that have high growth potential, Majali said.

“Afghanistan has seen some remarkable growth recently; while the Afghanistan government is committed to the development of a dynamic, competitive private sector, several international organisations and countries have pledged their support to work in partnership with local businesses to revitalize the economy,” he said.

“By connecting Kabul with Bahrain we are opening a huge commercial opportunity for Afghanistan’s well known traditional industries such as carpets and gems, and the industrial sectors namely construction and engineering, IT/telecommunications, transportation, and of course mining, which are poised for take-off. With Bahrain’s ‘business friendly’ economic policies and its strategic location at the door-step of Saudi Arabia offering a multi-million dollar business market, I can assure the trade and business community of Afghanistan that there is a huge market waiting for you.  As the national carrier of the Kingdom of Bahrain operating the largest network in the Middle East, we are well positioned to connect you to these markets,” he said, minutes before the inaugural flight took off.

The plane touched down at Kabul International Airport at 2:50 pm, three hours and 15 minutes after leaving Bahrain. The soft approach through a valley close to high jagged mountains was impressive.

“We are glad to have connected Afghanistan with Bahrain and beyond,” Maher Al Musallam, Gulf Air Deputy CEO, said at the Kabul airport reception. “Our Kabul service will be a great news not only for the business community in Afghanistan but also for the vast Afghan community living and working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Levant region, Europe, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who will find Gulf Air’s convenient flights connecting them to their home country.”

On the inaugural flight, several Afghanis carrying German passports were flying to their country of origin after transiting in Bahrain.

“Gulf Air also foresees a huge opportunity for Bahrain’s private sector businesses in Afghanistan, with several multi-million development projects going on in Afghanistan,” Al Musallam said.

Mohammad Yaqub Rassuli, President of Kabul International Airport, was obviously pleased to see so many passengers disembark from the plane.

“It is a special day,” he said. “After 30 years of war and destruction, Afghanistan has been witnessing reconstruction in the last ten years. Thank God, Kabul airport is today able to welcome very important airlines from the Gulf. I hope that Gulf Air will soon increase the number of its flights to Kabul from four a week to 10. The company is well recognised and has several networks in various cities. Our passengers will fly safely and securely from Kabul to Bahrain and from Bahrain to the world,” he said.

Rassuli said that Kabul airport will soon handle more cargo flights.

“We are keen on more tourists coming to our country. Afghanistan is traditionally for tourists. Although the number of tourists is not as high as before, we look forward to more visitors coming in,” he said.

Security was not a vain word at the airport. When we had to go through the routine security check, there was no complacency or leniency. Wahida and Nadia and the rest of the staff were cautious and attentive. They carried out their delicate duty with obvious compassion and remarkable devotion.

But when it as over and we were cleared, there were friendly conversations and large smiles.

“There is pressure, but it does not last,” they said.

Even their impeccable uniform fails to turn them into severe-looking employees. David could not believe it. He had expected issues, and found smiles. He had anticipated trouble, and he was greeted with contagious smiles. “You should see what it is like in some Western airports. Maybe you should give them some training,” he said to the girls before we boarded the plane back to Bahrain.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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