BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah has censured Royal Brunei (RB) Airlines for poor management as it grapples with the effects of COVID-19, including revenue losses, forcing staff to take unpaid leave and prohibiting them from discussing airline cutbacks in public.

During an unscheduled visit to the RB Campus on Monday, the sultan said the COVID-19 pandemic presented a substantial challenge for the airline and that strong leadership is required to cut revenue losses.

“[The pandemic’s impact] really tests the competencies of all parties, especially RB board of directors and executive management. Implementing effective initiatives and mitigation measures are vital in reducing losses,” he said.

The aviation industry is one of the worst-hit sectors following the coronavirus outbreak, with  travel restrictions further resulting in passenger slump.

The flag carrier could lose hundreds of millions in lost revenue due to the pandemic.

His Majesty said RB executive officers led by the CEO should take the helm in driving RB towards recovery.

“Let there not be officials who use RB as a stepping stone for their own self-interest such as taking the opportunity to use the coronavirus epidemic as an excuse to work full-time and claim perks and privileges from RB,” he said.

The airline has suspended the majority of its flights since April, retaining flights to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Hangzhou and Manila until January 31.

A Royal Brunei Airlines’ Airbus 320 neo aircraft pictured in a hangar on Dec 21, 2020. Photo: Infofoto

Poor handling of employee concerns

His Majesty also brought up RB staff issues amid the pandemic.

He said the RB management had taken steps that were “less than favourable”, such as forcing employees to take leave while looking to hire expats at the same time.

“This is something that should not have happened. But it still happened. Why? Could it be a desire to show authority where something that should not be done is still carried out?

“I do not see any good in this behaviour, except that it will invite harm. Any parties involved in this situation must realise it quickly,” he added.

In April, the national carrier had placed over 1,700 of its employees on compulsory leave due to the pandemic.

The monarch said RB employees were also warned by management not to disclose any airline-related information such as not receiving their bonuses or no pay increase.

Earlier in September, RB retrenched foreign pilots as part of cost containment measures.

His Majesty speaks with Royal Brunei Airlines staff during an impromptu visit. Photo: Infofoto

Pay gap between expats and locals

The monarch also raised the issue of wage gap between expatriates and locals, where the former was said to have received higher pay despite holding the same job rank in the company.

“I also heard that the reason we take in expats is to provide guidance to locals. But this did not happen after they were hired.

“There is no sharing or transfer of experience and skills with the locals. There are also local staff who are doing the work of these expats.

“If this is the case, then there is no reason for expats to fill RB’s top-level management positions,” he added.

Sultan warns of RB power struggle

His Majesty also hinted at a rift between RB management and the board of directors, saying that the two parties were moving in “different directions”.

“The management, apart from wanting to know [everything], also wants to control everything that happens in the company, including any plans that have been set by the board of directors.

“They want to know anything related to jobs, planning and every single purchase made by the company,” he added.

The sultan said it is important for RB’s administration and management to have plans that are relevant and meet the airline’s requirements.

There should be proper reasons to purchase new aircraft, and not just to sell old aircraft, he said.

“This kind of planning needs to be studied carefully and must take into consideration the suitability of current needs and circumstances.

“To preserve the good name of RB, everyone related to this company — from board of directors, executive officers, administration and all RB employees — must work as a team for RB and not for their self-interests,” he added.