BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Royal Brunei (RB) Airlines has started laying off foreign pilots and is finding additional ways to cut costs as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to prolong weak passenger demand.

The second finance and economy minister on Thursday said in a press conference that the retrenchment of RB’s foreign pilots was “inevitable” when the global airline industry is reeling from the pandemic.

“This is obviously not something we like to do. We are not flying as frequently as we used to, so we definitely have excess manpower,” said YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah, who is also chairman of RB’s board of directors.

He added: “We appreciate the foreign pilots’ services over the years. We are in an [unavoidable] situation… we’re doing everything we can to continue flying to destinations.”

The layoff announcement comes after Brunei’s aviation sector recorded a steep decline of 93.1 percent in the second quarter of 2020 as opposed to the same period last year.

RB has suspended a vast majority of its flights since the end of March, only retaining four out of 29 routes but has resumed flying to three other destinations from August to October.

The national carrier is also dealing with the setback of the government’s decision to impose inbound and outbound travel ban from March 16.

File photo shows Second Minister of Finance and Economy YB Dato Dr Hj Md Amin. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Responding to a reporter’s question on the current state of RB, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin said cutting pilot jobs will not be enough to solve the flag carrier’s woes.

“We need to be careful about how we manage our business from here on. We’re seriously looking at cost management.

“The retrenchment of foreign pilots will not solve the problem, we have to continue looking at other cost containment measures as international travel will not [resume] anytime soon,” he continued.

The minister did not disclose the number of foreign pilots who were made redundant.

According to 2017 figures, almost three quarters of RB’s 138 pilots were locals.

In March, the airline had told its 1,750 employees that they would be required to take compulsory paid leave for two months until May.

Brunei-Singapore green lane increases passenger traffic

When asked about the number of travellers who took advantage of the green lane arrangement with Singapore, the minister noted that there were more RB passengers to and from Singapore since both countries allowed essential travel from September 1.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin said 160 travellers left for Singapore while about 115 passengers arrived in Brunei from September 1-24.

RB currently operates twice-weekly flights to Singapore.

The bilateral travel arrangement only applies to those conducting essential business and official travel.

The minister foresees the number of people on Brunei-Singapore flights will fall once passengers have conducted their essential travel.

“Those who need to [carry out] essential travel have already done so and they probably won’t do it again, so the number could come down,” he added.