BAHRAIN AIR SHOW: Gulf Air awaits regional jet feedback

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Gulf Air has tantalisingly left the door ajar to other manufacturers to bid to supply the bulk of an eventual fleet of up to 10 regional jets. It comes after the Bahrain flag carrier committed to two leased Embraer 170s in what is likely to be a major switch in strategy for the Middle East's once dominant airline.

New chief executive Samir Majali wants to assess passenger reaction to the 67-seat, two-class E-170s before ordering more aircraft, but the former Royal Jordanian boss is convinced that increased frequencies and the ability to serve thinner routes will prove a boon for the ailing airline.

"It is a new concept in regional travel and if customers like it, and we think they will, we will order some more," he says. However, he adds that Gulf Air will continue its "full analysis of all regional jets, from Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer and others".

He says there is a "long-term potential for up to 10" regional jets, helping Gulf Air meet its ambition of "eventually serving every Arab capital with a double-daily service".

The plan mirrors a similar approach taken by Majali at his former airline, where he withdrew many long-haul services in an admission that Royal Jordanian could not compete as a global hub carrier with the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. Instead, he positioned the Amman-based carrier as a feeder service from Europe and the Gulf into the Levant, replacing some widebodies with E-195s and E-175s.

A relaxation of bilateral slot restrictions at key airports will give regional jets their breakthrough in the Middle East, believes Mathieu Duquesnoy, Embraer's sales director for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

At the moment, he says, regulated markets make it difficult for airlines to increase frequencies on smaller aircraft. However, increasing moves towards open skies will mean "more and more airlines will be looking to right-size to smaller capacity equipment".

Embraer has sold aircraft to five airlines in the region, including EgyptAir, NAS and Royal Jordanian. Duquesnoy believes the "big three" - Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways - could eventually join the regional airliner club "I very much hope they will look into it," he says.