Gulf Air agrees long-haul plan and weighs regional jet options

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Gulf Air has reached an agreement on restructuring its long-haul fleet orders but is waiting for the political situation in the Middle East, including its home in Bahrain, to stabilise before publicly disclosing its plans.

The airline has also issued a request for proposals for at least 10 regional jets to Embraer and Bombardier, having dropped the Airbus A318 as an option for the short-haul fleet.

Gulf Air has 20 Airbus A330-300s and 24 Boeing 787s on order but, in the face of heavy losses, has been intending to revise its fleet plans to concentrate on smaller aircraft types for improved local connections.

Chief executive Samer Majali, speaking to ATI as the airline opened a new lounge at London Heathrow, said the carrier had "a deal on the table" and was "in agreement" with the two airframers regarding the future of the long-haul orders.

"In all the discussions we're trying to preserve the economic element of it," he says.

But owing to the tension in the Middle East, Gulf Air is reluctant to disclose the details. "We've finished but there's a question of timing," says Majali. "The discussion before was commercially-sensitive, now it's politically-sensitive."

He says that, under the current circumstances, a disclosure would probably be taken negatively, whether it centred on expanding or reducing the fleet.

Gulf Air has similarly been taking the events in the Middle East into consideration while planning its regional jet modernisation programme, but is nearing a conclusion. "We're just holding back because of events," says Majali.

The carrier has been testing Embraer 170 and 190 aircraft on local routes but is drawing up plans for a permanent fleet.

It has issued a request for proposals based on 100-seat aircraft, essentially opting either to take the Bombardier CSeries CS100 or the Embraer 195. Gulf Air is looking for "a minimum of 10" aircraft, says Majali, and is balancing its experience with the Embraer against gambling on the all-new CSeries.

"It's not an easy decision," Majali says. While the CSeries carries a higher risk, he says: "Risk has a price. If you factor in the risk in the pricing you're OK. And we want to be a trendsetter in something."

Gulf Air had originally considered taking the A318 as a transitional aircraft towards CSeries, but then looked at taking the type as a regional jet option in its own right when Airbus came forward with a promising deal on a batch of A318s it was looking to place. But Gulf Air has dropped the A318 as a permanent solution.

"It's a difficult regional jet as a standalone case," says Majali. "But Airbus came in with a lot of support to try to place it."