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Gulf Air Airbus A321neo Business Class Review [CMB to MLE]

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Daniel Ross
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Daniel Ross

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Daniel has loved aviation and travel his entire life. He earned a Master of Science in Air Transport Management and has written about travel and aviation in publications like Simple Flying, The Points...
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Airline: Gulf Air (GF)
Aircraft: Airbus A321neo
Flight #: GF145
Route: Colombo (CMB) to Malé (MLE)
Date: December 2, 2023
Duration: 1 hour and 7 minutes
Cabin and Layout: Business class, 2-2
Seat: 1A
Cost: $339

Gulf Airlines is one of several carriers that operates a fifth freedom route between Malé (MLE) in the Maldives and Colombo (CMB) in Sri Lanka.

The 2 countries are only around a 1-hour flight apart, which makes for a popular dual-center vacation itinerary for travelers.

I decided I’d be one of the many to do just that after visiting the Maldives on a Virgin Atlantic press trip to celebrate the carrier’s recently launched nonstop service to Malé from London.

I’d tried SriLankan Airlines in business on the hop from Malé to Colombo, so I wanted to try something different for the return.

After considering the other fifth freedom options, such as Emirates, Etihad, and FlyDubai, I decided to go with Gulf Air — the national flag carrier of Bahrain.

The main reason is that the flight would be operated on its brand-new Airbus A321neo with lie-flat seats in business class — even though the jet is a narrow-body. The departure time of 5 p.m. also factored into my decision as this would give me enough time to get to the airport from Unawatuna, which is around a 2-hour drive away on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

Hot Tip:

Airlines have to abide by a set of “freedoms,” which stipulate the type of flying permitted over specific countries. The fifth freedom is one of the most interesting, as this permits airlines to carry paying passengers between 2 foreign nations so long as the journey starts or ends in the airline’s base country. In this case, a fifth freedom agreement means Gulf Air can carry passengers between Bahrain and Sri Lanka and pick up and drop off passengers in the Maldives along the way.

Booking Gulf Air Business Class

Once I’d found the Gulf Air flights I wanted via Google Flights, I headed directly to GulfAir.com to make the booking.

Booking Gulf Air business class
Booking Gulf Air business class. Image Credit: Gulf Air

I was offered 2 business class fare options: Smart for $339 and Flex for $573.

Paying extra to be able to change or cancel for free and earn extra Gulf Air Falconflyer miles wasn’t worth it for me here.

Gulf Air business class fare types
Gulf Air business class fare types. Image Credit: Gulf Air

In addition to Falconflyer, Air Canada Aeroplan and Etihad Guest members can add their membership numbers to Gulf Air flights to earn points/miles.

Gulf Air frequent flyer seletion
Remember to add your frequent flyer numbers whenever you can! Image Credit: Gulf Air

The best program to credit to if you’re based in North America would be Air Canada’s Aeroplan.

When booking a cash ticket like this, I’d recommend using one of the many credit cards that reward you for spending on travel.

One of the best cards in the U.S., thanks to its high rates of points earning and $300 annual travel credit, is the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. For example, using this card to pay for this $339 fare via Chase Travel would earn 5x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar —1,695 points total.

Colombo’s Bandaranaika International Airport

Experiencing Sri Lanka’s railway network once was enough for me to splurge on a transfer to the country’s main international airport.

The 2-hour car journey from Unawatuna cost a grand total of $51. That’s a lot more expensive than the $4.50 I paid for the train, but I’m glad I went with this option.

Hattie Pearson, a friend and radio host based in the U.K., passed me Lanka Mate‘s details to arrange my ride. I highly recommend this company should you be looking for a ride or guide in Sri Lanka.

Checking in and Heading Airside

Documenting my travels in detail for the last 5 years for work has completely changed how I travel. By that, I mean when I’m in an airport or on a plane, my senses are on high alert, and I’m naturally on the lookout for new and interesting things.

One of those occasions was when I was pulling up at Bandaranaike International Airport and noticed a ticket booth. Why on earth would there be a ticket booth at an airport?

Sri Lankan Airlines Colombo Airport Ticket Entry
If you’re not a passenger, you have to buy a ticket to enter Bandaranaike International Airport.

Bandaranaike International Airport is one of several that I’ve visited in Asia that requires a valid boarding pass to enter the terminal. However, someone with a business brain decided to open a new (yet likely very tiny) revenue stream by charging non-travelers a small fee to enter the terminal.

Once inside the airport building, all passengers and baggage are scanned before being allowed to enter the check-in area. This is also a very common procedure in airports across Asia and Africa.

This was my first time seeing a separate security lane for foreign passport holders.

Gulf Air A321neo CMB pre check in security
Extra security scanning is commonplace at airports across Asia.

A small line of people was waiting to check in at Gulf Air’s economy desk.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB check in queue
Economy line.

Lucky for me, I was the only person when I arrived at the fast track lane for business class passengers and Gulf Air’s Falconflyer elite passengers.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB check in
Oh, I do love a fast track.

Next up was immigration, followed by security, which only took a few minutes despite not having a priority lane for business class passengers.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB emigration
Immigration.

Araliya Lounge

Once I’d cleared immigration, I followed signs to the “Special Passenger Lounges.”

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge directions
This way to the lounges.

Gulf Air business class passengers are eligible to use the Araliya Lounge — 1 of the airport’s 3 lounges.

It’s located at the start of the moving walkways to the gates, less than a 5-minute walk after clearing security.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge entrance
The entrance to the Araliya Lounge.

I’ve learned to not expect much from non-airline lounges in Asia, and the Araliya Lounge fit that narrative.

It served a purpose, was clean and tidy, and that was about it.

Very few passengers were in the lounge, which made for lots of spare seats.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge seating 3
Seating in the Araliya Lounge.

I like a lounge with a runway or apron view, but unfortunately, the Araliya Lounge let me down here.

Thick wooden blinds covered the windows to stop the heat from getting in.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge seating 2
No views here.

Looking back through these images, I realize just how big the lounge actually was.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge seating
More empty seating.

There was a varied selection of hot and cold food. I didn’t try anything as I wanted to save my appetite for the flight: a decision I’d later come to regret.

I’d have probably dared to go for the chicken vindaloo. I was proud of how much I’d seemingly built up my spice tolerance in my few days in Sri Lanka.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB hot food
Chicken vindaloo in the Araliya lounge.

In my red meat-eating days, I’d most certainly have tucked into a hearty portion of mutton potato curry.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB hot food
Mutton potato curry.

Sweet and sour veggies and dauphinoise potatoes with mushrooms were on offer to balance out the meat.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB hot food
Veg and potatoes.

There were also a couple of spicier options.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB hot food
I realized what “devilled” actually means is “blows your head off.”

The least tempting option was a generic gratinated fish fillet topped with cheese that looked like it had seen better days.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB hot food
Cheesy fish, anyone?

The final hot dish on offer was Moroccan vegetable stew with couscous.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB hot food
Moroccan vegetable stew with couscous.

Last but not least, there was a small selection of sweet dishes, including fresh fruit and a version of watalappan — a delicious Sri Lankan dessert.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB desserts
Fruit and dessert.

As for drinks, guests could help themselves to bean-to-cup coffee or a selection of teas.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB coffee
Hot drinks.

The self-serve cold drink bar had a variety of soft drinks, spirits, liquors, Heineken beer, and a couple of wines.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB Araliya Lounge FnB bar
Self-service drinks.

Boarding

Most of the gates at Bandaranaike International Airport have jetbridges for boarding, with a few exceptions.

My Gulf Air flight was one of those exceptions, which meant heading down from the main concourse to ground level to another security and passport check.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB gate
So much security!

I usually love a trip to the aircraft on a bus as it makes for great content. On this occasion, I only managed this picture as I spotted the Gulf Air A321neo for the first time.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB taxi
On the bus to the aircraft.

Onboard Gulf Air’s Airbus A321neo

Shortly after being welcomed onboard, I was handed a Gulf Air-branded plastic bottle of water.

Gulf Air A321neo business class welcome drink
Gulf Air water.

Once boarding was complete, Gulf Air’s hospitality started promptly with a towel that was so hot it nearly singed the ends of my fingers off.

Gulf Air A321neo business class hot towel
Hotter than the sun.

Next up came the Middle Eastern classic: a date basket. I’d love to know why wrapping these individually in plastic was deemed necessary.

Gulf Air A321neo business class FnB dates
Dates à la plastic.

And finally, we were offered a predeparture Arabic coffee. I accepted but quickly realized Arabic coffee was not for me.

Gulf Air A321neo business class FnB arabic coffee
Arabic coffee.

We pushed back right on time, and after a short taxi, we were up in the air and saying goodbye to Sri Lanka.

Gulf Air A321neo business class CMB take off
Until next time, Sri Lanka.

Business Class Cabin

At first glance, I liked the fresh look and feel of the cabin. The A9C-NG-registered jet, which was only delivered new to Gulf Air in September 2023, looked and smelled brand new.

The cabin has 16 seats in 4 rows of 4 in a 2-2 configuration. Unlike some airlines, like JetBlue, with its 1-1-configured narrow-body business class cabin, Gulf Air passengers seated at the window seats don’t have direct aisle access.

Gulf Air A321neo business class cabin
The business class cabin on Gulf Air’s Airbus A321neo.

Business Class Seat

Aside from the lack of direct aisle access, the modern seats are comfortable and include several customer-centric design features.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat leg space
To give you an idea of seat space and legroom.

The in-seat calf rest can be moved separately from the rest of the seat, which is a bonus if the footwell is unreachable while seated.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat position
Extra leg support is always welcome.

I appreciated the shelf located under the IFE screen for stowing small personal belongings, as even some business class cabins on wide-body jets can be lacking in the storage department.

The tray table — which was very user-friendly — popped out easily from the central console between the seats.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat tray table
Tray table stowage.

First, it extended into a position that was only half the full size and included a retractable flap for using personal devices instead of the IFE.

From this first position, it was possible to slide out of the seat without having to move the tray table.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat tray table
Tray table position 1.

Once fully extended, the surface area was more than large enough to fit a laptop.

Soft metallic gold finishes, like the edges of the storage shelf, surfaces, and tray tables, can sometimes come off a bit garish and tacky, but Gulf Air managed to pull it off in style.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat tray table
Tray table extended fully.

The seat’s 2 USB-A ports and the headphone jack could have been better located.

This awkward-to-reach area also doubled up as a storage area, but only while in flight.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat outlets
The USB and headphone jack were awkwardly located.

Given the lack of privacy of these 2-2 configured seats, the divider would certainly have come in handy had someone been sitting next to me.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat divider
We love a privacy screen.

The whole point of this business class layout is so that Gulf Air can offer its premium passengers the chance to lie fully flat even when flying a narrow-body aircraft.

However, it’s not super practical as when the aisle seat is in the lie-flat position, it could require a level of acrobatics should the person at the window seat need to go to the restroom or stretch their legs.

Gulf Air A321neo business class seat bed
Lie-flat position.

For example, Gulf Air could have opted for a similar 2-2, 1-1 configuration like the Airbus A321neos that TAP Air Portugal operates on some of its transatlantic flights. Better still, JetBlue operates a 1-1-configured cabin on its transatlantic Airbus A321neos.

As you’d expect with such a modern aircraft, the IFE screen — with no less than 179 movie options — was of great quality and reacted well when using the touchscreen functionality.

This was the first time an IFE screen suggested I use the handheld device rather than the screen.

Gulf Air A321neo business class IFE
IFE screen.

The handheld remote (also with metallic gold finishes) was also very responsive.

Gulf Air A321neo business class IFE hand held
“Step Up” was the throwback I never knew I needed.

Food and Beverage

I was handed a menu at boarding and was impressed when perusing the options while waiting for take-off.

That was until a crew member came to take my order and realized I wasn’t flying all the way to Bahrain. She explained that full meal service would only be served on the sector from Malé onwards to Bahrain.

Instead, I was served a smaller, cold meal. The bread, main course, fruit, and dessert were all served on 1 tray.

While simple, I had no complaints about the taste or quality of the colorful selection of snacks. Needless to say, I wish I’d indulged in that curry in the lounge.

Gulf Air A321neo business class FnB meal
Cold meal service from Colombo to Malé.

Passengers not flying all the way to Bahrain were still allowed to order from the cocktail menu. I’ve recently become partial to a Bloody Mary when flying, and Gulf Air’s version had the mix of juice, vodka, and spice just right.

Gulf Air A321neo business class FnB bloody mary
A Gulf Air Bloody Mary.

I managed to squeeze in a glass of Duval Leroy Champagne, too.

Gulf Air A321neo business class FnB Champagne
It’s tough to say no to bubbles in business.

Amenities

The only amenity to speak of was the Gulf Air-branded headset. I would assume, but can’t confirm, that passengers continuing to Bahrain would be given an amenity for their longer flight of around 4.5 hours.

Gulf Air A321neo business class headphones
I spy with my little eye, something beginning with U. (Unnecessary plastic).

Bathroom

Given the lack of space on a narrow-body jet, even the business class restrooms felt a little cramped and claustrophobic. In my opinion, this is the only thing I consider a drawback when flying narrow-body jets over wide-body jets.

Gulf Air A321neo business class bathroom
A tight squeeze.

Service

Service was professional and efficient. Nothing more, nothing less. That said, I’d have expected the crew to make more effort to build rapport with passengers, given there were only a handful of us in the business class cabin.

Arrival

It felt like only a few minutes had passed as we started to descend into Malé’s Velana International Airport a bit earlier than scheduled.

Gulf Air A321neo business class aircraft wing tip
Gulf Air’s logo catching the soft light of golden hour.

Final Thoughts

While my flight with Gulf Air was nothing particularly special, it certainly wasn’t bad, either.

I’ll definitely remember it for being different from my previous business class experiences.

I liked the thought that had gone into the design of the seats — I just wish they’d opted for a 1-1 configuration instead.

This is probably the main reason why I’d opt to fly a wide-body jet of a Middle Eastern competitor if I were flying the longer leg from Malé with an onward connection to Europe.

Gulf Air A321neo business class aircraft at Male MLE
Thanks for the ride, Gulf Air.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which country is Gulf Air from?

Gulf Air is the national carrier for Bahrain in the Middle East.

Does Gulf Air fly to the U.S.?

No, Gulf Air doesn’t currently serve any U.S. cities.

Does Gulf Air have flat beds in business class?

Yes, Gulf Air has flat beds on its long-haul jets as well as its narrow-body Airbus A321neos.

Do they serve alcohol on Gulf Air?

Yes, Gulf Air serves alcohol, including pretty spectacular Bloody Marys.

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About Daniel Ross

Daniel has loved aviation and travel his entire life. He earned a Master of Science in Air Transport Management and has written about travel and aviation in publications like Simple Flying, The Points Guy, and more.

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