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Tue 5 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Bahrain Air takes off

Bahrain Air director commercial operations M. S Fakhri, a former Gulf Air stalwart, outlines his ambitions for the kingdom's first privately-owned low-priced carrier.

Bahrain Air takes off
M.S FAKHRI: Bahrain Air is focusing on operating to short- and mid-haul destinations.

Bahrain Air director commercial operations M. S Fakhri, a former Gulf Air stalwart, outlines his ambitions for the kingdom's first privately-owned low-priced carrier.

How did Bahrain Air come about?

The first idea for the airline came up about 18 months ago when a group of investors came together and did feasibility study to see if a low cost carrier in Bahrain was possible.

The low-cost airline model makes it affordable for you to travel eight times a year in theory.

It looked really good, so the investors created a board of directors and put in the 10 million [Bahraini] dinars (US $26.59 million) required.

The investors then looked to me and some others for a good business plan for the company and we all worked very hard and very fast; it was very positive, everyone was genuinely excited and hopeful.

We then got our approval and blessings from the government and Bahrain Air was officially designated as the second national airline of Bahrain.

Why does Bahrain need another airline operation?

Because Bahrain is the financial centre of the Middle East! We have so many business people from all over the place coming in and out of Bahrain, so there's a huge market.

Business is booming in the country and the Bahraini people themselves are great travellers - a lot of them go shopping to Dubai; they go to Oman; they go to Beirut; they go to Damascus and so on, plus Bahrain is also well and truly on the tourist map now.

So you're confident there is space in the market for Bahrain Air?

Yes, definitely. I think with the current boom and the oil prices going up people can afford to travel - where as they used to travel once a year, now they can afford to travel four times a year.

In fact, the low-cost airline model makes it affordable for you to travel eight times a year in theory.

Don't forget, these new airlines also create jobs, new opportunities and new hotels.There is so much construction going on; every day you see new investors coming in.

What kind of aircraft are you using?

At the moment we are using dry-leased A320 and B737-800 aircraft - but they are being refurbished, repainted - so when they arrive to Bahrain they will be smelling fresh and look as good as new.

Of course we will be buying our own aircraft in the future, but at the moment getting new planes is not that easy.

Are your staff mainly Bahraini?

We do have multi-national staff, but at Bahrain Air we are lucky in that we have a lot of nationals - I would say almost 90%.

The nation is well educated, very hard-working, loyal and easy to recruit, so we don't have a problem in that area at all.

However, pilots have proved difficult to find so we have no choice but to recruit them from elsewhere.

But the senior management is all Bahraini and the board is all Bahraini.

The airline is going to be inter-regional - is international expansion on the agenda yet?

Not quite yet; that is for the future. That will probably come in our next five-year plan. At the moment we have other priorities - we have to establish ourselves first.

But we are very ambitious and it will be in our plans - maybe sooner than we think who knows?

Gulf Air is having some well-publicised difficulties - will the emergence of Bahrain Air create further problems for the Bahraini flag carrier?

I don't want to talk too much about other airlines. As you know, I worked for Gulf Air and I think we are completely separate. We are two different types of product - we complement each other.

At Bahrain Air we are concentrating on medium- to short-haul destinations, flying the low cost model, so the price has to be cheaper than Gulf Air.

Obviously Gulf Air offers a lot more in terms of food and drinks and that's costly.

Our operation is very simple - it's point to point. We have food on board in economy class, but the customer has to pay for it. But in business class of course, we give everything free, including the lounges.

So you don't think Gulf Air will feel any pressure?

It shouldn't, because Gulf Air is an established airline; it has a bigger fleet, a bigger route network and, as I say, we are simpler and targeting different markets.

I mean how many brands of cars do you have on the market? You have lots of different brands. An airline is a product so it's your choice - it's up to the passenger. I don't think there will be a problem.

Will you pay travel agents commission or remunerate them?

The agents will be charging the passengers a service fee of AED 40 (US $10.89) for GCC sectors and AED 60 ($16.34) for sectors outside of the GCC.

What message are you spreading about Bahrain Air?

Just try it - it's the smartest choice.

The Bahrain-Dubai service will run its inaugural flight on February 1, 2008 and will operate two flights a day from then on. The airline's Dubai GSA is Al Rais Travel.

The carrier said flights to Doha, Kuwait, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Alexandria, Sanaa, Khartoum, Mashad (Iran), Colombo and Patenga (Bangladesh) were on the agenda.

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