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Thu 14 Feb 2013 02:17 PM

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The sad story of Bahrain Air

After spending five years manfully battling against mammoth headwinds, Bahrain Air was finally forced into voluntary liquidation

The sad story of Bahrain Air
Bahrain Air

For every Emirates, there’s a Bahrain Air. Last week, after spending five years manfully battling against mammoth headwinds, the carrier was finally forced into voluntary liquidation. It’s bad news for the carrier’s 300 staff, who will find it tough to find new jobs in the same industry, as rival Gulf Air is also paring back its staff.

CEO Richard Nuttall – who is, by all accounts, an immensely likeable guy – must have had one of the toughest jobs in the Gulf in recent years. In an interview with Arabian Business last year, he described 2011 as ‘spectacularly uninteresting’ in terms of growth.

That remark was something of an understatement. The term perfect storm has become a cliché, but for Bahrain Air, the last two years have seen huge obstacles thrown in its path. Airlines worldwide have been forced to pare back their operations or merge; the biggest news in the industry right now is the $11bn merger between US Airways and American Airlines’ parent, which will create the world’s largest carrier.

Expensive fuel and an uncertain economic outlook have affected most airlines’ balance sheets; the situation was far worse for Bahrain Air given the ‘Arab Spring effect’ on most of its routes, plus the unrest at home. And if that were not enough, the carrier – which marketed itself as somewhere between a low-cost and a full-service airline – also faced competition at home from state-backed Gulf Air, as well as what appears to be a pretty intransigent attitude from the Ministry of Transport.

But the real question has to be whether Bahrain – with a population of only 1.3m – ever needed a second airline in the first place. Even at the time that Bahrain Air launched in 2008 – which in itself was unfortunate timing – rival Gulf Air was on its third CEO in two years and battling desperately to stay competitive against fast-expanding Emirates, Etihad and co. By the end of 2008, it was losing money hand over fist – at around half a billion dollars a year – and acting as a major drag on the results of its owner, sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat. Bahrain Air was left with the crumbs from Gulf Air’s table in terms of routes; its traffic rights were such that it could only fly to destinations that its larger rival had written off as unworthy.

All airlines make a loss in the first few years of operation and Bahrain Air was no exception. But the difficulties the carrier faced were such that there was no way that shareholders could see when the balance sheet was going to improve. While Gulf Air lapped up government funding, Bahrain Air couldn’t raise financing from the banks. And while Gulf Air is still flying despite losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Bahrain Air is finished due to debts of tens of millions.

While there was some talk of a merger last year, I’m not sure the idea was ever seriously considered by Gulf Air. The state-owned carrier didn’t need Bahrain Air’s planes (which were leased anyway), or its staff, and the only routes that the smaller airline had were those which Gulf Air didn’t want.

The most successful carriers in this region have been those that fulfil a national need, and have some degree of support – in whatever form that may come – at the governmental level. Unfortunately Bahrain Air had neither. Air Arabia is the rare exception, which is why it’s tough to underrate the achievements of CEO Adel Ali. When we asked Ali last year what advice he would give anyone wishing to set up an airline, his candid response was: “In a nutshell, don’t do it.” And as Richard Branson once famously said: “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline”.

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Kaptain Saif 7 years ago

Yeah start with a billion dollars and let the money loose after the flying airplane.

Sad to hear about Bahrain Air. The demise comes quite early. what happens to the leased planes then..??

Nimo 7 years ago

Bahrain air was a good trend setter with innovative marketing and good service, I will miss them. They did not have a level playing field. That's how life is. Hope there staff find jobs they genuinely served us.

Thierry 7 years ago

What's your market is the name of the game? At best a pool of 1.3M Bahrainis with GCC wealthier competitors having launched other budget style airlines (Jazeera, etc...)? No chance! All too often Gulf countries build the offer (real estate, skyscrapers, rings a bell?) and hope for the demand to show up, and it usually doesn't.

N.S. 7 years ago

I'd be curious to know who's the genius that had the brilliant idea to propose and convince investors to put hands on their wallet and form a new low cost airline in a country of just 1 point something million population, with an existing struggling airline which prices are already competing with low cost and with Al Jazeera (the second low cost airline in the Gulf) struggling to survive and changing its low cost strategies. The unrest in Bahrain played maybe 5% of the reason, but it's not definitely the main one. The main one is that the services that are offered are already in abundance for the targets. The whole strategy was mistaken first place and now I also doubt there was ever a market study to justify such an expensive initiative and adventure.

leo50 7 years ago

sad to say it appears that there was no realistic marketing plan done in the first place. Someone will have made money out of this debacle but sadly not the shareholders. Sounds like Pakistan building a tower bigger than the Burj Khalifa, must be exactly what that country needs!

Jacob 7 years ago

The reality is that Bahrain Air serviced the low paid workers from Asia. Its one money spinner was the Kerala route. For these people (40 % of the population of Bahrain) the loss of the airline is a real blow as its fares were at least one third cheaper than Gulf Air. I flew a couple of times. Very basic but good value for money for a quick break. Did the Government care a jot? Do Ministers drive Nissan Tidaas? It barely appeared on their radar and was just a nuisance for Gulf Air which has been lobbying against it for years. A bad sign for Bahrain and a blow to help attract foreign investment. The message is: if the royal family and other powerful clans don't have a stake it can wither and die. But of course, it's only poor Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis so who are affected so why should the Government care. Shame!