The flag carrier of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the island nation state in the Arabian Gulf, will celebrate its 70th birthday in 2020. Chris Long profiles Gulf Air's training expertise.

The original founders of Gulf Air were four neighboring nation states, but later the scale of demand in the whole region encouraged those countries to go their separate aeronautical ways. Gulf Air remains headquartered in Muharraq, adjacent to Bahrain International Airport, and has had to take stock of its new situation. Initially this was not easy, but in recent years it has seen a re-birth. Support from the highest level, His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa (himself a pilot), leads the way in recognising the fundamental importance of commercial aviation as a catalyst for economic strength and growth. As a result, and with high-level government involvement, the airline has been able to plan an optimistic future and has been making a major investment in re-equipping the airline with the latest generation aircraft.

Orders for both the Boeing 787-9 and the A320neo family provide the platform for what Captain Waleed A. Hameed Al Alawi, deputy CEO, defines as the creation of a “boutique” airline, well able to provide an upmarket service. Illustrative of this, for instance, is the fit of several of the soon-to-arrive A321neos, which will have 16 lie-flat business seats and 144 economy seats – a seat density which would make others blink.

Standards Buy-In

Key to this vision is the training of all the team who continuously strive toward the highest possible professional standards, a level which Al Alawi believes they have attained. A major influence in this has been Captain Suheil Abumariam, Manager Advanced Qualification Program, Gulf Air Training. By adopting a well-recognised and comprehensive quality programme, the foundations were built to painstakingly create a complete and detailed guide on how to operate safely and effectively based on predefined competencies.

The challenge was to get the entire team to buy into this philosophy and use the tools for continuous improved performance. From the available evidence this has been pretty much established. Currently the training and operational teams are co-located, so there is very close cooperation and interchange between them, with the majority of trainers being current in their operational roles. Most of those in the training department are multi-tasked – working both on the delivery of the training, but also immersed in the ongoing development and adoption of training content and technology. What is striking is the integration of the training teams – cabin crew and pilots work alongside each other to create a team-game.

Pilot ‘Bahrainisation’

The majority of new entry pilots at Gulf Air arrive with a fresh EASA CPL/IR Frozen ATPL; 60 of these are being recruited during 2018 and 2019. Gulf Air then undertakes all further training (an extended Type rating of 30 FTD and FFS sessions, totaling 120 hours), and it is here where the governmental support comes in. As Nouf AlSowaidi, Director Human Resources explains, a nationwide organisation, Tamkeen, has the task of funding training for the local workforce and so provides loans, arranged through the Bahrain Development Bank, so that new pilots can pay for that type rating. This loan can be paid back once the graduates are working with the airline.

This is relevant because, in the quest for Bahrainisation, an extremely high proportion of these new pilots come from Bahrain itself: 100% of the 42 Tamkeen-funded Second Officers are Bahraini, 97% of the 68 First Officers, and 94% of the 89 Senior First Officers. Presently 47% of the 219 Captains are from Bahrain. From those numbers it is easy to see that the future looks good for Gulf Air being able to rely on local recruiting to fill the flight deck. What has been identified is that the rate of turnover in this demographic is vastly reduced, as most of this group want to remain close to home for their work, thus creating a win-win for the airline. With some 2,000 applicants waiting to start the intensive selection process, and 24 successful applicants waiting in line, there is no shortage in the pipeline.

As the airline transitions from being a purely Airbus fleet (the A330s are slated to be retired by the end of 2019), the fleet mix will consist of the A320 and A320neo families, partnered by the Boeing 787-9. As Captain Khalid Janahi, manager Pilot Training B787 fleet, recounts, the type rating for that aircraft was initially carried out by Boeing instructors, but now is undertaken by Gulf Air’s own team. It became apparent that the most effective method was to encourage the pilots not to compare previous (Airbus) methodology and calls, but to approach the course with a “clean sheet” mentality and start from scratch. Simply looking over the shoulder at “the way we used to do it” made everything harder.

Once through the course, the 80 or so crew who are presently operating, enthuse about the aircraft and the change to that aircraft is now highly sought after. Gulf Air chose not to change the Boeing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and have adopted them for that type’s fleet.

Promotion to Business Class cabin crew requires training to be a Sky Nanny.
Promotion to Business Class cabin crew requires training to be a Sky Nanny.

Multi-National Cabin Crew 

The demographic for the cabin crew is markedly different from that of the flight deck. Here there is a very wide range of nationalities – nearly 70 countries are represented. Additionally, most recruits see this as an interesting but relatively short-term role, which offers travel and stimulating lifestyle. Consequently, there is a constant arrival of new recruits for the training team to take on, with approximately 150 new hires in 2019. Anita Narayan Joglekar, manager Cabin Crew and SEP Training, says that this new generation respond well to the themes of teamworking and sharing, and the warm welcoming learning environment leads to the creation of a distinctive and strong shared Gulf Air culture.

The training is scheduled to integrate Safety and Emergency Procedures (SEP) with the Service Training. The aim here is that, because these two disciplines run in parallel during a flight, the cabin crew needs to be able to switch to the appropriate mode quickly if necessary. The training pattern mirrors that, whilst integrating CRM throughout for the same reason. The instructors are recruited internally from current and volunteer cabin crew who then receive their instructor course, which has them qualified for both SEP, first air, CRM and service training. All initial and recurrent training is carried out in-house, with specialist areas – firefighting / first aid, etc. carried out by specially trained instructors. One slightly unusual specialist is the on-board Sky chef – tasked with providing the food for the Falcon Gold Business Class. This individual completes the full SEP course, and then carries on with the culinary skills.

A very wide range of nationalities – nearly 70 countries are represented – among the airline's cabin crew.
A very wide range of nationalities – nearly 70 countries are represented – among the airline's cabin crew.

Career Progressions

In both the cabin and pilot teams there is a clearly defined career progression. The pilots can move to the left-hand seat via a command course. This is initiated by seniority, but of course, performance over the preceding 24 months must be exemplary, and a further step to instructor has its own 10-step sequence during a long training process. For the cabin crew the promotion to Business Class service is achieved by completing a course which also includes the training to be a Sky Nanny – to help passengers with young children. There is then the possibility of moving up to Economy Cabin Team Leader, and again to take on the lynch-pin role of Cabin Service Manager.

Team Bonding

A striking feature of the Gulf Air culture is the determination to work together as a team. As Tara Coady, CRM Developer/ Coordinator says, the most powerful indicator of that is the frequent Training Manager Meetings (TMMs) and interdepartmental meetings whereby all the stakeholders – cabin crew/flight ops/ground ops/quality assurance/fleet management and safety teams meet to discuss the training requirements and results – an immediate feedback of performance and improvements. The core tasks are then agreed, and the specialist individual departments then action those tasks. An intriguing initiative is the routine use of training videos which are scripted by the training teams and produced by the visual communications team. These feature recently experienced operational situations, and encourage transparency, self-learning and provide training solutions. For the CRM training, there are videos of case studies that are designed to provoke interactive opportunities for self-learning, in which trainees are actively involved in discussion and guided to provide solutions in risk assessment and risk management for safe operations.

The strong visual appeal as a training tool, together with the intrinsic currency of these, have a significant impact, particularly on a generation who are used to immediacy and relevance.

The Way Forward

The training team at Gulf Air looks forward to the arrival of new aircraft in the upcoming years – by 2022 there will be 17 additional A321neos and 12 A320neos. In total 10 Boeing 787-9s will have arrived, and the fleet upgrades will have been completed. They believe that in the meantime the continuing improvements in training will have further raised the bar – and the “boutique” label will be well established. 

Published in CAT issue 3/2019