On board the historic inaugural Gulf Air flights between Bahrain and Israel
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Thursday, 30 September marked a special day in aviation and political history as the inaugural commercial flights between the states of Bahrain and Israel took to the skies.
Just over a year ago on 15 September 2020, Israel and Bahrain (together with the United Arab Emirates), signed the Abraham Accords on the White House lawn, agreeing to fully normalise relations between their states.
I was invited on board as part of a special delegation to fly from Bahrain (BAH) to Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion (TLV) and back again on board Gulf Air‘s Airbus A320neo, registration A9C-TA, alongside ministers, tourism executives and dignitaries.
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Bahrain to Tel Aviv
I arrived at Bahrain International Airport early in the morning as sun filled the stunning new $1 billion (£738.9 million) airport with golden light. The Falcon Gold business-class check-in area was quiet with little to indicate a special flight was about to depart.
We were quickly ushered to the check-in desks where COVID-19 tests, vaccination certificates and passports were checked and our boarding passes were issued. These came complete with a large round “Israel” sticker.
We had a short pit stop for coffees in the spacious, comfortable Falcon Gold lounge before heading down to the departure gate, 21B.
Additional security checks were carried out at the gate before boarding buses to take us to a remote stand where the aircraft was waiting.
The plane was parked up next to an Israir A320 which had just arrived from Tel Aviv, bringing Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid who had come to inaugurate the new Israeli embassy in the Bahraini capital, Manama.
I took my seat, 4A, in the final row of the slick-looking business-class cabin which comprises 16 recliner seats in a 2-2 configuration.
We were welcomed on board with a refreshing mint and lemon drink and Arabic coffee and dates.
With a flight number selected to reflect Israel’s international dialling code, flight GF972 took off at 10:48 a.m. local time, ascending quickly over Saudi Arabia to begin its historical journey across to Israel.
A comprehensive food and drink selection was offered for breakfast. I went for the Bahraini saffron toast, along with fresh fruit, orange juice, pastries and tea.
Whilst sitting in a cabin full of ministers and airline executives, with a sense of nervous excitement in the air, the flight itself passed by without fanfare before descending into Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv was the last place I visited before the pandemic, leaving on the final British Airways flight to London before Israel closed its borders to foreigners. I am a regular visitor of Israel and haven’t had such a long gap between visits since my childhood, so the approach over the Dead Sea and Jerusalem was particularly emotional for me.
On arrival, we were treated to a real show. We touched down after two hours and 18 minutes and the classic water cannon salute was fired as the aircraft edged toward the terminal and the Bahraini and Israeli flags were hoisted out of the pilots’ windows.
Tel Aviv to Bahrain
The real action happened on the ground at TLV. We were escorted through to the transit area of the airport, and there was a brief moment of confusion when the Israeli security staff were perplexed by our routing.
My Hebrew skills came in handy to understand everything they were saying. “So, they are bloggers? They just came from Bahrain? But they are going back to Bahrain? Why?!”
One phone call and a shrug of the shoulders later and we were on our way.
We arrived back at the gate and witnessed diplomacy in action. Carefully crafted speeches were given by the likes of Gulf Air acting CEO Capt. Waleed AlAlawi and Israeli Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Idan Roll. Each speech extended warm words of cooperation, collaboration and friendship.
A complex web of gift exchanges between the VIPs was also conducted.
The media furore concluded with a ribbon- and cake-cutting ceremony. This marked the end of the ceremonial formalities and gave us a chance to stroll around the airport and enjoy about 30 more minutes in Israel.
We were joined by Gulf Air’s director of marketing and digital marketing management, Mohamed Adel Saleh Jamsheer, who was instrumental in pulling the entire event together.
It was incredible to see the excitement on his face, after being afforded the opportunity to visit Israel from Bahrain — something he had been hoping to do but could not for decades.
We rushed off together to find some souvenir magnets to buy, “Or my mum will kill me!” he said.
We boarded the aircraft once again to return to Bahrain. This time, the plane was far busier with the economy cabin full of Israeli influencers and tour operators ready to experience Gulf Air and Bahrain for the very first time.
On this flight, gift bags were waiting at every seat, including a scarf printed with the Bahrain skyline and Gulf Air Dreamliner, a pin celebrating 70 years of the airline and a certificate commemorating this inaugural flight.
Arabic coffee and dates were served once again but this time, now edging into the afternoon, many passengers found themselves with a glass of Champagne in hand.
After a stunning take off over the Israeli coastline, a solid “snack” was served. I went for the mango chicken salad and the rest of the flight passed in a comfortable and relaxed way.
The flight landed in Bahrain after two hours and 20 minutes to applause from passengers, many of whom were geared up for an exciting few days in a new country.
Booking this route with miles
Whilst not yet available to book with points on the website yet, it is possible to use Cathay Pacific Asia Miles to book Gulf Air award tickets. For the hop between Bahrain (BAH) and Tel Aviv Ben Gurion (TLV), tickets will cost:
One-way in economy: 10,000 miles
One-way in business: 25,000 miles
Return cash prices from Tel Aviv start around $204 (£151) in economy and $636 (£470) in business class.
The parties on both sides were clearly so excited to finally be able to open up tourism and trade and it was heart-warming witnessing these emotions.
In terms of the actual experience, Gulf Air, especially on board both flights, along with the airport authorities on both ends put on a wonderful show, setting up this new commercial route for positivity and success.
It was an honour to be part of something so historic both in terms of aviation and Middle East political history and is something that I and the others flying with me will not forget in a hurry.
All photos by Nicky Kelvin / The Points Guy / Featured image courtesy of Gulf Air
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