Gulf Air strives to overcome gripes with regional fleet

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Middle Eastern carrier Gulf Air admits that its experimentation with regional jets has thrown up difficulties with passenger perception as well as operational issues with engines in the harsh environment.

Gulf Air has acquired four Embraer regional jets - two 170s and two 190s - as part of an evaluation of the potential of introducing smaller aircraft to parts of its network.

Chief executive Samer Majali, speaking to ATI at the Arab Air Carriers Organization conference in Cairo last week, said that the Bahrain-based airline had to change passengers' views on short-haul flying.

"People still want to travel for an hour, or an hour-and-a-half, with the biggest widebody," he says, conceding that some passengers "nag and whinge" at the relatively compact space in the regional types.

He points out that travellers used to taking large quantities of baggage are having to adapt to more limited luggage and personal space in the smaller fuselage.

But Majali also points out that the operating economics of the Embraer are "quite attractive". The type is one of three aircraft under consideration by Gulf Air for a permanent regional jet fleet.

"We can use [regional jets] for opening new routes with the smallest possible risk, and build up frequencies faster," says Majali.

Gulf Air admits it has been experiencing operational difficulties with the General Electric CF34 powerplants on the Embraers.

Majali, who oversaw the introduction of Embraer jets to Royal Jordanian Airlines, attributes this to the "rougher environment" on Gulf Air's network.

"We're working with General Electric to solve the problem," he says.

GE states that the local hot and sandy conditions affect all engines, and that the issue with the CF34 is "not unique". Regional aircraft, it points out, are constantly exposed to the harsh environment while larger types often escape to more forgiving areas.

A spokesman adds that GE has been working with airlines in the Middle Eastern region to incorporate new coatings for durability enhancement, design improvements to mitigate these effects, and preventative maintenance.

"We expect these improvement programmes will bring benefits, such as reduced hardware deterioration and increased time on-wing," he says. "However, it is difficult for an engine operating in high-severity environments like this to have the same performance expectations as engines operating in milder conditions."

Saudi Arabian Airlines and Saudi carrier NAS Air also use Embraer 170/190s, while Oman Air is planning to introduce the type.