Brunei’s state-owned airline downplays Sharia label to attract Westerners

Alcohol-free flights could actually strengthen Royal Brunei’s appeal to non-Muslim travelers, its chief says

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Royal Brunei Airlines is not marketing itself as a “halal airline,” its chief executive tells Al Arabiya, as the flag-carrier wants to appeal to a mixture of both Muslim and non-Muslim customers.

“We would not describe ourselves as a Sharia-compliant airline or otherwise,” Karam Chand insists. “We don’t see it that way. Royal Brunei just reflects the Muslim ethos of Brunei. The food is in the halal tradition, and in the whole country that’s the way it is done. In our ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] network a lot of our customers are Muslim, so it’s a natural fit.”

Although Royal Brunei is a “dry airline” that does not serve alcoholic drinks, the country still allows non-Muslims to import small quantities of alcohol for personal consumption.

“On the planes we don’t serve and we don’t encourage people to open their duty-free [alcohol purchases], because there is a whole raft of customers there,” Chand explains. “But in the country people can drink privately. There are no laws preventing that from happening in Brunei.”

The concept of halal airlines hit the headlines earlier this year after Malaysian start-up Rayani Air claimed to be the country’s first Sharia-compliant carrier.

Media coverage of its launch drew parallels with Royal Brunei and two other flag-carriers of Islamic nations: Iran Air and Saudia. After initially winning praise for the concept, Rayani’s operating license was revoked amid complaints of poor reliability and non-payment of salaries.

The now-defunct airline has since been criticized for using the Islamic faith as a selling point – but failing to offer a decent service.

But with the “halal airline” label still popular among travelers, Brunei’s conservative landscape makes it a natural candidate to pick up the baton.

Situated on the northern coast of Borneo – an island predominantly divided between Malaysia and Indonesia – Brunei is one of the world’s smallest and richest nations. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, its absolute monarch, enacted a Sharia penal code in 2014, drawing harsh criticism from western observers.

Despite strengthening its Islamic credentials in recent years, however, the country is also exploring ways to diversify its petro-economy with new sources of income – including tourism.

“We are heavily dependent on oil and gas and at some point we’ll have to go beyond that,” Chand says of the national strategy.

“It’s very early dialogue at the moment. But ultimately Bruneians have to decide which way they want to go. They have a conservative society. They are particular about the effect of tourism – on the culture – and for that reason it hasn’t taken off … But, in the future, it will develop and that will have a big impact on Royal Brunei. That creates opportunities straight away for us.”

As well as courting inbound visitors to the country, Royal Brunei is looking to attract more foreigners on its two-stop connecting flights between the UK and Australia.

The flag-carrier currently serves one destination at each end of the so-called Kangaroo Route: London to the west and Melbourne to the east. Its UK leg includes a second stop in Dubai.

Flights to Perth, Brisbane and Auckland were abandoned in 2011 during a deep-rooted restructuring program. While there are no plans to restore those points, Chand says that the delivery of a fifth Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2018 will allow Royal Brunei to boost long-haul frequencies.

The flag-carrier’s only other long-haul destination is Jeddah, which it serves seasonally to cater for Hajj and Umrah traffic. Pilgrims on that route include Malaysians hailing from the nearby cities of Kota Kinabalu and Miri.

Estimating that more than 60 percent of the airline’s long-haul customers use Brunei as a stopover without spending time in the country, Chand stresses the need to accommodate western sensibilities on-board.

The big three Persian Gulf carriers – Dubai’s Emirates Airline, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – also depend heavily on western transfer traffic over their hubs, and have opted to serve alcoholic drinks in spite of conservative laws at home.

However, while Royal Brunei management have “talked about” a policy change, Chand says there is “no pressing need” to follow suit.

To the contrary, he believes that alcohol-free flights could actually strengthen Royal Brunei’s appeal to non-Muslim travelers – particularly given the long, grueling sectors on the Kangaroo Route.

“One of the interesting things we’ve discovered is that a number of the customers who choose us because we are a dry airline are westerners,” Chand notes. “We have customers living in Brisbane who used to fly with us [until that station closed] … Now they actually go down to Melbourne just to fly with us, because they feel better. That’s a choice that they make.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group, says that drunk and unruly passengers have become a “significant problem” for the industry, with 38,230 incidents reported between 2007 and 2014.

Halal or otherwise, Royal Brunei is positioning itself as a sober alternative in increasingly rowdy skies.

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