Royal Brunei Airlines (BI, Bandar Seri Begawan) has started laying off expat pilots and is seeking more ways to cut costs in the wake of weak travel demand because of COVID-19.

“It is true that we are letting go of foreign pilots. This is something we didn’t like to do, but we are managing a business. We are not flying as frequently as we used to, so we definitely have excess manpower, especially at the pilot level,” Dato Seri Setia Dr Awang Haji Mohd Amin Liew bin Abdullah, Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, Minister of Finance and Economy II and Royal Brunei Chairman, told a recent COVID-19 media briefing in Brunei.

The Borneo Bulletin said he indicated the national flag carrier would be looking at other cost curtailments but did not elaborate. “We are seriously looking at cost management, so this sort of retrenchment is something inevitable. In fact, we are seeing this in many countries, in all airlines. But obviously that will not solve the problem, so we have to look at other cost-containment measures. I think we all know that international travel will not come back any time soon.” 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.”

The layoff announcement comes after Brunei’s air transport sector declined by 93.1% in 2Q20 over 2Q19, according to official government statistics.

Royal Brunei suspended the majority of its flights since the country went into lockdown on March 16, 2020, only retaining essential travel to four out of 29 routes, but resumed flying to three other destinations between August and October. The airline in a statement said it would continue to operate a substantially reduced flying programme until January 31, 2021, for travellers who meet strict criteria. Destinations included in its new temporary schedule from September included Kuala Lumpur Int'l, Singapore Changi, Melbourne Tullamarine, Hong Kong Int'l, Hangzhou, and Manila Ninoy Aquino Int'l, with London Heathrow being added from October 3, 2020.

“Most of the time when we fly, we are just carrying cargo, but now that we have the green lane with Singapore, we have slightly more passengers compared to the past. Once those people who need to do essential travel have already done theirs, they might not do it again, so the numbers could potentially come down,” the minister said.

Brunei on September 27, 2020 reported one active COVID-19 infection out of a total of 146 cases, with 142 recoveries and three deaths.