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Postcard from Bahrain – When is an Airline not an Airline?

April 6, 2014

When is an airline not an airline? When it’s an heirloom.

Such is the fate of Gulf Air, Bahrain’s flag carrier and perennial financial basket case. It’s the airline that can’t find a CEO – as the transport minister noted a couple of months ago in a fit of dangerous candour – because nobody in the aviation industry wants to take the job. The reason? According to the minister, too much government interference, which is not surprising given that there are three cabinet ministers on the Board, and that each time the airline goes to its masters for another subsidy to shore up its losses, questions are asked in Parliament.

For a Gulf state, a national carrier is more than a means of ferrying its great and good from A to B. It’s a symbol of national prestige. If Gulf Air were allowed to fail, it would be a humiliation – an admission that this tiny country couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with its oil-rich neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Some might argue that Bahrain already suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. Although it was the first of the Gulf states to discover oil, it was also the first to feel the effects of depletion. Today it’s a minnow in production terms compared with every other member of the GCC. Was “small-man syndrome” at play when the country decided to upgrade itself from an emirate to a kingdom? Apart from Saudi Arabia – a zillion times larger in terms of territory, population and economic output – none of the other hereditary rulers in the Gulf have seen fit to place a crown upon their heads.

And also, apart from Saudi Arabia, none of its neighbours invests so heavily in the cult of royalty. Pictures of the leading royals are hard to escape. They are on highway hoardings, buildings and shop windows. In every hotel reception, office entrance and even in school classrooms. (That said, I’d take royalty any day over the cults of personality pursued by the gimlet-eyed action man in Russia or the grim clerics of Iran.)

So it’s hardly surprising that the country’s prestige-conscious rulers would be reluctant to let their beloved airline go to the dogs, despite losses that critics claim should be going towards other much-needed development: education, public transport and affordable housing, for example. Not to mention the clean-up of a spoilt environment and measures to reduce air pollution.

In one way, Gulf Air has been a success story. 60% of the airline’s staff is Bahraini, a far higher proportion of nationals than the local giants, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad employ. But therein lies the dilemma. If you follow the ruthless dictates of capitalist theory, you might be tempted to put the airline out of its misery, despite the impact on thousands of Bahrainis who either work for Gulf Air or supply it with goods and services. A couple of thousand job losses from a single enterprise would make headlines in Britain, France or the US, even if the consequences would barely dent the economies of those countries. But in a nation with 600,000 citizens and only half that number of working age, the economic impact of Gulf Air’s disappearance would be significant – the more so given that Bahrain is not without its political problems right now.

Leaving aside its massive year-on-year losses, how does Gulf Air shape up against its rivals? Pretty well, at least in my experience.

I use the airline frequently on short-haul flights around the Gulf. The online booking system works well, the aircraft don’t look as if they’re falling apart and the cabin crew are friendly and helpful, even if they’re relatively hopeless at settling back the surge of passengers who rise from their seats even as the aircraft is taxiing to the terminal – it takes the British Airways memsahib death stare to sort that one out.

What often makes or breaks the customer experience is how an airline deals with problems. The other day I arrived in Bahrain at midnight on a flight from Riyadh. I got to my hotel at 1am, and discovered that I had left my IPad in the aircraft. Panic ensued. It was in the seat pocket, and I had visions of the morning flight winging its way back to Riyadh with my device serving as an additional attraction for some lucky passenger. I called the Gulf Air helpline. No response. I called the airport lost and found number that was on the website, and got through to a customs officer who gave me a couple of numbers to try. No response.

So at 2am I jumped into the car and headed back to the airport. The airport information desk couldn’t find anyone to help. But in the booth next door I spotted a guy from the airline. He made a couple of calls, ascertained that the cleaners had found the IPad and suggested I come back for it the next morning.  I told him I had a full morning – couldn’t I have it now? Without any argument he said sure. It would take about twenty minutes, because the plane was not parked at a gate, and he would have to drive out to it. I went for a coffee, and before I’d finished it he was back with the IPad.

Now I’m pretty sure that it was not his job to go off and fetch my lost property. He would have been within his rights to make some excuse not to get off his backside and insist that I came back in the morning. After all it was my senior moment that created the problem in the first place. But he made the effort, for which I was extremely grateful.

Therein lies one of the secrets of good customer service. It’s not enough to have a well-honed process that makes one human interchangeable with another – I’m thinking of Qatar Airways here (see Qatar Airways – Operational Excellence, but at What Price? for more about them). It’s having people prepared to deal with the consequences of Murphy’s Law using their own initiative rather than reading the rulebook before taking action. Or, as is perhaps the case with Qatar, being afraid to deviate from the rulebook.

This was not an earth-shattering example of going the extra mile, but it was clear that the guy made an extra effort. Both government and private sector organisations in the Middle East are full of bureaucrats who wouldn’t lift a finger without the requisite forms and a dollop of bowing and scraping – unless you happen to be a friend or a relative. I have written before about that great international beacon of customer service (not) – HSBC – for example.

But what this guy’s helpfulness does show is that a single act of decency can transform one’s perception of the organisation that the person represents. All the better if the attitude that engenders the act is part of the culture of the organisation, because then you have the ultimate prize: operational excellence with a coating of customer intimacy.

I’m not sure that Gulf Air matches Qatar Airways in operational excellence, and it certainly can’t compete with its neighbour’s opulent faculties. However all other things being equal – such as price and convenience – as long as an airline is reasonably efficient, I would always choose travel with the one that has people like the guy who retrieved my IPad.

Does the high proportion of nationals that work for the company make a difference? Maybe. Certainly friendliness and willingness to help are endearing personal qualities of many Bahrainis, even if those attitudes can be ground out of them by years of working in hierarchical bureaucracies.  I would far rather travel with an airline staffed mainly by nationals than one whose workforce is mainly foreign and lives in fear of being caught committing some peccadillo by a rampaging CEO on his frequent forays through his empire masquerading as Attila the Hun. No worries on that score for the Gulf Air staff, because they don’t have a permanent CEO, let alone a rampaging one.

In recent years the airline has had to slim down and abandon its pretensions to be a major world player. In the process it has cut down its losses. That clearly makes sense. I would hate to see it disappearing altogether. This is not because I believe in sacred cows or national heirlooms. But countries like Bahrain have in recent decades become so drenched with the vanilla of globalisation that it’s hard to find institutions with a genuine local flavour.  I defy a visitor to the City Centre Mall to find a single shop selling Bahraini products outside a small area called The Souk that sells incense, traditional clothes and trinkets. The rest are outlets you could just as easily find in London, Paris or New York.

Gulf Air may have started under the ownership of several Gulf states, but now it’s exclusively Bahraini. It should capitalise on that, and seek to reflect the positive qualities that endure in Bahrain despite the country’s current problems: hospitality, friendliness, tolerance, openness to new ideas and an abundance of talent in its young people. Perhaps a re-brand is called for. Since the demise of Bahrain Air, there is no airline that carries the name of the country.

I for one believe that Bahrain is better off with Gulf Air than without it. It’s not the perfect airline, but it’s more than a just a business for the country. It will have a future if Bahrainis continue to believe in it and want to work for it. Just as I love the gnarled and slightly eccentric taxi drivers – all Bahraini – that pick you up from the airport, I appreciate their friendly sons and daughters who check me in.

Bahrain might be a minnow, but as long as it retains its distinctive qualities it doesn’t have to be overshadowed in any sense by its big-boy neighbours. The same goes for Gulf Air.

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